Minus Brett Favre, Vikes lose elite status
If Brett Favre follows through on his text message to the Minnesota Vikings and officially retires, the Vikings might find themselves in third place in the NFC North, and the balance of power in the conference would shift decidedly toward Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.
That's the impact Favre has on the conference, which is why Vikings management huddled Tuesday to see if it could talk him out of retiring. With Favre, the Vikings are a 12-win team with hopes of going to the Super Bowl. Without him, the Vikings would scramble for a wild-card spot.
Like most franchise quarterbacks, Favre adds at least five to six points per game to an offense. In 2008, with Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson starting at quarterback, the Vikings squeaked out a 10-6 season and won the division. At the time, they were primarily a running team, with Adrian Peterson carrying the offense. Their offense scored 23.7 points a game.
Favre helped the Vikings score 29.4 points per game last season and elevated them to the NFC Championship Game. With Jackson or Sage Rosenfels running the offense, Minnesota would struggle to get nine wins. The offensive line isn't as dominating as it was two years ago, and age and injuries could be catching up to cornerback Antoine Winfield, defensive tackle Pat Williams and others. The safeties struggled last year against good passers and could do the same in 2010.
And perhaps the worst part of the equation for a Vikings team without Favre is that the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears could pass them in the division. The Packers took a calculated risk two years ago in trading Favre to the New York Jets. General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy gambled that moving Favre would give Aaron Rodgers the chance to evolve into an elite quarterback. He did, and last year he took the Packers back to the playoffs as a wild card.
Without Favre, it could be argued that the Vikings have the worst quarterbacking in the NFC North. Rodgers is the top quarterback. Jay Cutler threw for 27 touchdowns for the Chicago Bears in 2009 in what was an off season, but now he has Mike Martz calling his plays. Even Detroit, which might be set for only four or five wins this season, has Matthew Stafford rapidly improving and a better cast of players on offense.
If Favre is gone, the Vikings will have a harder time matching up against the NFC East, which plays the NFC North this season. The East features quarterbacks Donovan McNabb of the Redskins, Eli Manning of the Giants, Tony Romo of the Cowboys and Kevin Kolb of the Eagles. Favre might have gone 3-1 against them. Jackson or Rosenfels could go 1-3.
The loss of Favre definitely would help the Saints, who open against the Vikings on Sept. 9. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams could concentrate on stopping Peterson and forcing fumbles. Jackson has had difficulty with the blitz and could expect Williams to blitz on most downs to confuse him.
Unless the Vikings can talk Favre out of retiring, the Cowboys and Saints will be battling for the first seed in the conference, while the Packers have the best chance to take back the NFC North.
Here's how I see the NFC stacking up if Favre is gone:
1. Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys have the most talent of any team in the conference. They have a 3-4 scheme that is loaded with playmakers who are just hitting their prime, along with an offense that includes Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and three good running backs.
2. Atlanta Falcons: Settle down, Saints fans. This is more of a schedule thing than a personnel evaluation. The Falcons have an easy, 31-49 nondivisional road schedule (based on last season's records) that features only two games against teams with winning records. The Saints have a 48-32 nondivisional road schedule.
3. New Orleans Saints: It's always hard to repeat after winning the Super Bowl, but the Saints are loaded on offense. Gregg Williams is in his second year of improving the defense. If the Falcons win the NFC South, the Saints should get a wild card.
4. Green Bay Packers: The Packers are back as the team to beat in the NFC North. Rodgers is an elite quarterback and the 3-4 defense is sturdy.
5. New York Giants: The Giants edge the 49ers for the No. 5 seed as long as their defense bounces back from an underachieving 2009 season. Manning has evolved into a 4,000-yard quarterback, and the Giants should return to being a decent running team.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.