The Minnesota Vikings: Scary in More Ways than One
There's nothing quite so strange as preparing yourself to shield your eyes from yet another cringe-worthy season from your favorite football team only to find that someone messed with the script and all of a sudden you have a feel-good story on your hands. The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2012 campaign covered in the stench of a three-win 2011. On top of this they had head coach, Leslie Frazier, who came from the vaunted Brad Childress coaching tree, with other roots tied to Andy Reid (another red flag) and Tony Dungy (not so much so). The Vikings also came into the season with second-year QB Christian Ponder as their mostly-unproven starter and virtually no real receiving corps, at least by NFL standards. Last but not least, their most valuable player, Adrian Peterson, was coming off knee surgery that has ended some careers. Yet here they sit, entering week six, with an impressive 4-1 record. To paraphrase Talking Heads frontman David Byrne: Well, how did they get here?
There's no real simple answer to this question, just as there's no guarantee that their early season success continues, but some of the signs are there. First things first, as a team that went 3-13 last year, Minnesota's schedule isn't exactly a killer, and a lot of their easier games are frontloaded. In Week 1 they squeaked by a not-so-good (and that's being kind) Jacksonville team in overtime, not exactly an inspiring home opener, but a win. Week 2 they lost in almost the same fashion they had won the first week when the Colts beat them with a late field goal in Indy. But then came the game that opened some eyes, as the Vikes beat San Fran week three in Minnesota. Don't let the 24-13 final fool you, Minnesota dominated a team everyone thought might be the best in the league at that point. A win in Detroit followed by this past weekend's drubbing of Tennessee and Minnesota sits tied for first in the NFC North with Chicago. Again, it hasn't been the toughest schedule but the win against the Niners and on the road at Detroit are positive signs. So too are how the Vikings are winning these games.
The Vikings defense has been stopping the run pretty well for a while now, and this year is no different. But it's been the play of defensive backfield that has really impressed thus far. The Vikings haven't had a decent pass defense in ages and if they can be just that, "decent," it will be a huge upgrade. An even bigger surprise might be the play of their special teams which hasn't been all that special since Bud Grant was coaching. No, seriously. The best example was the game with the Lions which the Vikes won without the benefit of an offensive touchdown. Return tds by Marcus Sherels and Percy Harvin were all they needed. Speaking of Harvin, he's proving that you don't have to be 6' 5" and 235 to be a dominant receiver. Just call him "Minitron." Final word on special teams, rookie kicker Blair Walsh has already proven to have a strong and accurate leg and made a couple of clutch kicks, which is all you can ask.
Adrian Peterson may not be all the way back, but he's been playing as well as anyone ever could have imagined. He sprained his ankle this past Sunday but still managed 88 yards which gives him 420 on the year to go with a 4.4 average and two tds. Prior to Sunday, Ponder had been playing mistake-free football. If you're going to get your first two picks of the season out of the way, best to do it in a blowout win. Looking at the big picture, the Vikings simply seem to have a much more complete team than they have in recent years. No longer counting on a single player, Peterson, or the run defense to carry the entire club they now have new stars and heroes popping up virtually every week. That's clearly a good thing.
All of this positive news aside, Minnesota really needs to make some hay in the next five weeks before their week 11 bye. Their next five games are at Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay, at Seattle, and Detroit. Their final six will be at Chicago, at Green Bay, Chicago, at St.Louis, at Houston, and Green Bay. So, while hope springs eternal in October, December reads like a horror movie script. That being said, who better prepared for a rip-your-heart-out ending than Vikings fans.