As the Vikings climb into the starting blocks for what many predict will be a joyous sprint back into the playoffs, beware.

Two of the first four games are against teams from the AFC South, which, by the way, is the best division in football since the Super Bowl was created XLIII years ago.

The AFC South is so good, in fact, the Houston Texans went 1-5 within the division but 7-3 outside of it. At a franchise-record 8-8, they were the only AFC South team not to finish at least four games over .500.

The Indianapolis Colts (13-3) won the division for the fifth consecutive year. The Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5) and Tennessee Titans (10-6) finished second and third, respectively, and also made the playoffs.

The Vikings open at Green Bay, where they were nipped 34-0 a year ago, and then return home to play the Colts, who are expected to have Peyton Manning back from surgery to remove an infected bursa sac in his left knee long before then.

Carolina, 7-9 a year ago, visits the Metrodome in Week 3, followed by a trip to Tennessee.

So, to recap, that's a visit to Lambeau Field and two bouts with the AFC South -- all before October. In other words, the Vikings could be 1-3 at the quarter pole with a prime-time game in New Orleans looming in Week 5. That's a hole big enough to swallow any playoff dreams.

A year ago, the Vikings played the AFC West. They went 2-2 against teams that were a combined 26-38 (.406). The Vikings lost to Kansas City (4-12) and Denver (7-9) but did crush San Diego, which went on to finish 11-5 and reach the AFC Championship Game.

The AFC South, meanwhile, went 42-22 for an NFL-record .656 winning percentage. The previous mark was .643 by the AFC Central in 1975.

The Vikings finish up with the AFC South in Weeks 9 and 12. Houston visits in Week 9, which follows the Vikings' bye. That's good for the Vikings, but a Week 12 trip to Jacksonville -- where you know the odds are Jags receiver Troy Williamson actually will see and catch a deep ball against his former team -- follows a Week 11 visit to Tampa Bay.

Despite the added difficulty of playing the AFC South, the Vikings also get to play their fellow NFC North teams six times, presumably without having to face Brett Favre. Maybe that was enough to make the Vikings a trendy pick to win the division.

Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell couldn't care less. He was unmoved by all the predictions a month ago while standing on the driving range at Interlachen Country Club waiting to participate in a swing clinic before the U.S. Women's Open.

Told that Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z had picked the Vikings to win the Super Bowl, the 12-year veteran laughed.

"Maybe that would have been a big deal to me early in my career," Longwell said. "But I've seen way too many teams picked to win the Super Bowl that don't even make the playoffs. So I don't put too much stock in that stuff anymore."

Actually, Dr. Z picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl last season. They finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs.

"I don't know how anyone could predict anything in the NFL," Longwell said. "Did anyone predict the Giants to win it all last year? I doubt it. No one knows what's going to happen."

True, but there's a really good chance that playing the Colts, Jaguars, Titans and Texans will be a lot more challenging than facing the Chargers, Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs.

Mark Craig •