Before I make a prediction, let met tell you why you should never listen to a sportswriter making a prediction.
If sportswriters were good at predicting the outcomes of games, there would be no sportswriters. We’d all live in Vegas penthouses and send underlings to the casino to place bets. We’d live off half the winnings and spend the rest on grape-peeling machines and time-machine research, so we could go back and do it all again.
I don’t know who’s going to win the games, and I don’t know anybody — writer, broadcaster, coach, player — who knows who’s going to win the games.
Given that as context, here’s the strongest unscientific prediction I feel comfortable making about the Vikings’ season: They’re a little better than most people think they are.
Here are 10 reasons why:
1 Christian Ponder isn’t as lousy as he looked this preseason: I know, I had the same reaction when I watched him in August. He looked terrible. But what do you trust more, his efficient play in must-win games last December, or his sloppiness in games that don’t count?
2 The roster is strong: The Vikings won 10 games last year and graduated only one senior — Antoine Winfield. They dramatically improved the talent at wide receiver. They have older players driven to win new contracts, like Jared Allen, and a large group of excellent young players, like Harrison Smith and Matt Kalil. Roster strength matters over the course of 16 games.
3 Their problems at cornerback are not unique: Focus on the Vikings, and you may be alarmed at their lack of production and experience at cornerback. Focus on the league, and you realize how many teams have similar problems. How many teams, other than Seattle, feature three or four strong corners? Hardly any.
4 Stability: Half the teams in the league will implode if they hit a rough stretch. The Vikings have the league’s calmest coach and excellent veteran leadership.
5 Backup quarterback: I don’t like Matt Cassel as an NFL starter, but the Vikings, unlike a year ago, have someone who can run the offense if Ponder falters or gets hurt.
6 The NFC North: We’ve become so accustomed to praising the strength of the division that we might not have noticed its flaws. The Packers deserve to be favorites again, but their offensive line is a mess and their defense is shaky. The Bears are transitioning from a defensive coach beloved by his players to an offensive technocrat. Marc Trestman is a brilliant coach, but this might not be a smooth transition. The Lions are soft and unreliable. There are games to be won in division play.
7 Bill Musgrave: Every NFL city loves to hate the local offensive coordinator, and Musgrave can puzzle with his play calls in big situations, but last year defenses decided they wanted to take away Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin and rattle Ponder, and Musgrave designed an offense that made Harvin an early-season MVP candidate, Peterson the MVP and Ponder an effective passer in December. Now Musgrave has more good players with whom to work.
8 Jared Allen: Despite his stats, you could tell Allen wasn’t himself last year. Now his shoulder his healthy and he wants to prove he deserves a new contract. A stronger pass rush will help out those young cornerbacks.
9 Special teams: Mike Priefer knows what’s he’s doing, and now he has a Pro Bowl placekicker, a new, strong-legged punter and excellent talent in the return game. As the Bears have taught us for years, ignoring special teams when evaluating teams is a mistake.
10 The MVP: Whatever his rushing total, Peterson has transformed himself from a remarkable athlete to an inspirational player. His strength of will defines his franchise, and his running ability makes life easier for his quarterback, receivers and defense. The schedule is difficult, but remember how Peterson performed in must-win games against the Bears, Rams, Texans and Packers last year. Predictions are meaningless, but do you really want to bet against this guy?