An Impossible Prediction? Hardly

When Dr. Z of Sports Illustrated predicted the Vikings to win the Super Bowl, the reaction was strong, but a look at the standings over the least two seasons shows how quickly teams' fortunes can rise and fall.

There has been plenty of backlash from the Sports Illustrated prediction that the Vikings will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. For some, the assumption that the Vikes can make the jump from mediocrity to greatness is just too much. But why should that be? All we have to do is look at where teams stood a year ago to see that fortunes in the NFL can change in a hurry.

In the AFC East, the Patriots came into last season coming off a 12-4 season and showed a four-game improvement to a perfect 16-0. The other news was much more dismal, as the New York Jets dropped six games on the ledger sheet (from 10-6 and the playoffs to 4-12 and the draft lottery) and Miami lost five games (from 6-10 to 1-15).

In the AFC North, Cleveland made the huge leap forward, missing the playoffs by an eyelash at 10-6 after posting a brutal 4-12 record in 2006. Just as sharp was the drop of Baltimore, which came off a 13-3 season to finish a hideous 5-11 last year – an incredible eight-game difference in just one year.

In the AFC South, the Colts were still the top dog, improving from 12-4 to 13-3 despite many key injuries, but two teams in the division both made the leap from mediocrity to the playoffs, as Jacksonville and Tennessee both went from being 8-8 in 2006 to 11-5 and 10-6, respectively, last year.

In the AFC West, the big drop belonged to Kansas City. After finishing 9-7 and making the playoffs as the last wild card in 2006, the Chiefs fell to 4-12 in 2007 and looked like a team in the middle of rebuilding project in just one year's time.

In the NFC East, the Eagles dropped only two games last year (from 10-6 to 8-8), but it was enough to move them from first to worst in the division. Dallas, which went 9-7 in 2006, jumped up four games to 13-3 last year, while Washington showed a similar five-game improvement (from 5-11 to 9-7).

In the NFC North, the division has boasted a 13-3 team each of the last two seasons, but not the same team. Chicago fell from 13-3 in 2006 to 7-9 in 2007 – finishing last a year after representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Packers, who, like the Vikings of 2007, finished 8-8 in 2006, made a five-game improvement to 13-3 last year and were at home in the NFC Championship Game. Even Detroit showed a four-game improvement in 2007, which doesn't show the whole picture since the team lost seven of its last eight games.

In the NFC South, turnover is the norm. Every year since the division was created, the last-place team from the previous year wins the division the next (we expect Atlanta to finally snap that trend). Tampa Bay was 4-12 in 2006 and looked positively awful. They improved five games to 9-7 last year. Many expect both Carolina and New Orleans to pass them this season.

In the NFC West, St. Louis did the standings limbo by showing how low they could go, dropping from 8-8 to 3-13. Arizona showed a modest three-game improvement last year (from 5-11 to 8-8) and remain one of the chic picks to do some damage out west this year.

Dr. Z's prediction of the Vikings in the Super Bowl has drawn out many doubters, but the fact remains that improvement in the NFL is no longer incremental. Teams rise and fall very quickly and, if they stay healthy and add the right component parts, teams like Cleveland, Dallas, New England, Jacksonville, Green Bay and Tampa Bay have proved that you can make big strides in one season. Was Dr. Z's pick out on a limb? Sure it was. It is an improbable pipe dream? Not a chance.

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