Minneapolis, MN Before the 2012 NFL season began, it was basically a forgone conclusion that when dissecting the NFC North, it would end up being a three team race. You had the perennial powerhouse Packers, who lost just one regular season game in 2011, and were looking to bounce back after a shocking home loss in the playoffs. You had the upstart Lions, who made the playoffs last year and were looking to build upon a really nice season. You also had the Bears, who coming into this year were, and still are, a very trendy pick to make the playoffs come January. But the overall consensus among fans and experts as far as which team would definitely finish last in this division, and by a good margin, was the Minnesota Vikings. It was an easy choice to pencil this team into the 4th spot in the NFC North, with countless reasons to support it. But as we all know, the NFL is a crazy world, where teams consistently go from last to first and vice versa in a moments notice. Only 25% of the season has been completed, so a lot is still to be determined. But are we getting an early glimpse into a team from the Twin Cities who will stun the NFL world and make this years playoffs?
It happens every year. Every season, there is a team or two who shocks fans and experts, and qualifies for the post-season. They are typically teams who almost nobody sees on their radar, and they are teams who stay under the radar while they continue to pile up wins. There is also this NFL fact to consider…..in each of the past 16 NFL seasons, there have been 5 teams in each season who have made the playoffs that didn’t in the previous year. The bottom line is, who will these teams be this year? Last year, a couple of teams made the playoffs that virtually nobody saw coming. The Cincinnati Bengals, who were starting a rookie QB in 2011, got the job done and ended up being a wildcard team. The San Francisco 49ers shocked just about everyone as they dominated the NFC West all year, and made it to the NFC Championship game. Fans are aware now that the Niners are one of the best teams in football, but a year ago they were not expected to do much at all. This is partly why the NFL is so great, and why fans of any team literally can have legitimate optimism about their team each year. The turnarounds in this league can and do happen very quickly, and is proven basically every year. So who are this years Bengals or 49ers? With as many victories already as they had all of last year, could it really be the Minnesota Vikings? Some things point to the answer being yes, but just as many reasons support the answer being no.
How are the Vikings getting it done so far? The first answer has to be defense. This defense is ranked 8th overall, and are averaging giving up just 18 points per game. Yes, they have faced some weaker teams in Indianapolis and Jacksonville, but they have also faced 2011 playoff teams San Francisco and Detroit. This defense is getting it done, and not making the huge game-changing mistakes that they did a year ago. The special teams has been outstanding as well, proven by two returns for TD’s against the Lions. The offense has not been overly impressive, but they have been extremely efficient. Can someone explain to me how Adrian Peterson has come back from a torn ACL which he suffered last December, and looked very much like his old self already? Amazing. The running game is ranked 10th, and has been a nice crutch for second year QB Christian Ponder to lean on. Ponder has been very good, not trying to do too much, and not turning the ball over either. For all of the attention that Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Jake Locker received last year, Ponder has very quietly gotten better and is showing that he may be the Vikings guy for many years to come. He is mobile, seems to make good decisions, and has a more than adequate arm to make all of the throws. Many questioned and chuckled when Minnesota selected him with their first round pick in 2011, but it is the Vikings who may be the ones to have the last laugh. Ponder has some really nice, young weapons in Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph. Harvin is finally putting it all together now, and is a scary player wherever he is lined up on offense or in the kick return game. Rudolph has already shown to be Ponder’s security blanket of sorts, as he has the look of being an outstanding tight end for the next decade or so. This Vikings team has the foundation to be very good, but can they speed up the process and actually be a factor in December?
Even if Minnesota continues this nice start to the season, there is a harsh fact that they have to consider later in the year. 5 of their last 6 games are against Green Bay, Chicago, and Houston. Amazingly, they don’t face either the Bears or the Packers until Thanksgiving, which means things could get dicey for the Vikings right around the holidays. Throw in a game against the Texans right before Christmas, and this schedule could doom Minnesota’s chances of stunning the NFL world and qualifying for the post-season. This nice start by them is one of the big surprises in the NFL right now, but do they have what it takes to stay consistent on both sides of the ball? Whether or not they stay in this NFC North race in 2012 is one thing. But another thing seems to be very clear…..this Minnesota Vikings team has many ingredients of being a legit NFC factor for many years to come.