The third preseason game between the Vikings and the Cowboys shed light on what to expect this season. Minnesota played well, and if not for a special teams miscue, probably would have defeated a good Dallas team. But that is why they have preseason, and certainly a blocked FG return for a touchdown is no reason to have deflated hopes. These things can be fixed in time.
The offensive line, much aligned in media, responded with their best game. John Sullivan opened up a few big holes, as did Steve Hutchinson. Charlie Johnson played well at left tackle, Anthony Herrera was decent. Phil Loadholt was beaten on a rush once or twice, but held his own for the rest. The second unit faltered some, but Joe Webb appears to like that -- as he can then run free. Adrian Peterson looked brilliant again. Donovan McNabb was precise in attack. Bernard Berrian made some decent catches. All in all, a good day on the offense.
The defense once again missed a few tackles, but not too many. There was definitely openings in zone coverage that allowed Dez Bryant to haul in big gains. The pass rush, so important to the coverage, was not as strong as hoped. Jared Allen did seem to hurry Tony Romo a few times, but obviously this team needs Kevin Williams to penetrate from the inside. Fred Evans and Guion started at tackle and were adequate. Christian Ballard did get a sack in the second half. Chad Greenway looked like a 'franchise-tag' player. The Hendersons were decent, though E.J. was run through on the Cowboys only offensive TD. In the secondary, Cedric Griffin made tackles, but often it was after a decent gain. Chris Cook also gave up a few significant gains. Players fighting for roster spots stepped up, most notably Marcus Sherels and Jordan Parks.
Just about ready for the start. The only problem is, so is everyone else....
The Green Bay Packers, owners of four Super Bowl rings (including last year), are poised and ready. They get back JerMichael Finley and Ryan Grant to an already explosive offense. Aaron Rodgers has looked better every year and the only question marks seem to be the offensive line's struggle in the preseason. They are the favorite to win the division.
The Chicago Bears, last year's winner, will be in the mix. Jay Cutler has his best year in some time, and Matt Forte proved he was not on the decline in 2010. Also running the ball could be Marion Barber and Chester Taylor. The Bears' defense will be strong led by Brain Urlacher and Lance Briggs. While not expected to win the division, many are choosing the Bears as a wild-card entrant.
The Detroit Lions are poised to achieve their first winning season in a long while, and with Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best and Calvin Johnson, have big play potential that has been lacking. Of course, all the attention is on the defensive tackles: Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Expectations are higher in Detroit than at anytime since Barry Sanders left. The Lions are the popular "sleeper" pick for 2011.
So where does that leave the Vikings?
Most do not think Minnesota has a shot at the playoffs, but concede they will be improved under the new regime of Leslie Frazier and the savvy quarterback Donovan McNabb. Losing the entire Williams' wall for at least part of the season should have an impact on the defense. The secondary is suspect at best. The best hope is that the Vikings find a pass rush that limits the secondary being exposed.
An 8-8 season would be an accomplishment according to those in the know. The division is fierce, the schedule is tough. But the Dome has been repaired, and a new brighter look comes from the changed roof. The turf is new, and hopefully, safer than previous turf. Anything can happen, right?
I think the Vikings will be better than expected. If the turnover ratio changes, and it should, Minnesota will find itself in games many would not expect. McNabb's veteran leadership, combined with Adrian Peterson's skills, could be enough to make a run for the division title again. After all, Minnesota has won the division (in its' many forms) eighteen times, eight more than the nearest competitor (Green Bay and Chicago). We are quite used to winning.
A final preseason game stands in the way. Important battles to make the roster are the news of the day. The spots for the secondary and wide receiver should be especially tough. Sherels has become a fan favorite, as he is a Gophers alumni. Another former Gopher, defensive lineman Cedric McKinley, played well late in the Dallas game. At receiver, my new favorite, Emmanuel Arceneaux will try land a spot, or at minimum, make the practice squad. After his big catch against the Cowboys, the secret may be out. It is my opinion that he will soon make us forget about Sidney What's-his-Name.
My prediction? The Vikings will be better. Will better be enough? I do not know yet.
After the Vikings' 20-7 victory over Seattle late last night I stepped into a local establishment and overheard this conversation which I scribed for this blog. Because I did not know these people I have assigned them nicknames.
Amethyst: "Did you see that goal-line stand in the second quarter? Four times they stopped Justin Forsett. And with the second defense against the top offense for the Seahawks. it will be like old times this year."
Purple Angry Fists: "It was Seattle for Christ's sake. It was T-Jack. It means nothing, nada."
Objector: "Are we going to order a round? I want another cocktail."
Amethyst: "Well, you would certainly agree that Donovan McNabb looked great? C'mon, a 106.8 passer rating. A long drive. And most importantly, no interceptions."
Angry Fists: "He got hit hard early in the first series. Three and out. The offensive line is terrible. Charlie Johnson is old, so is Steve Hutchinson. Everyone knows Sullivan is worthless. And don't get me started about Herrera."
Amethyst: "Herrera did not even play. Listen, the Vikings moved the ball. The line looked solid. Getting rid of McKinnie lit a fire under the remaining survivors. Charlie Johnson will be a welcomed addition at the blind side."
Objector: "That was a great movie. I love that woman. She did not deserve to be treated..."
Angry Fists: "The Seahawks are the worst team in football. They are a lock for the Andrew Luck lottery. The Vikings are in for fourth place this year. The Packers and Bears will both be good. The Lions are improving. What did we do? Sign Michael Jenkins? We did not address the defensive secondary and offensive line enough in the draft or free agency to compete. Christian Ponder and Kyle Rudolph? We needed linemen and corners and we get two skills players. Aarrggh."
Amethyst: "Your pills? The NFL has shown parity in recent years. Teams can go from 6-10 to 10-6 in the blink of an eye. Leslie Frazier is a good motivator. Minnesota is one year removed from the NFC Championship, and most parts are still in place"
Angry Fists: "Are you daft, that was all Brett Favre when we knew how to block. The Packers WON the Super Bowl last year. I cannot handle another year where the cheese heads are better than us. And now the Lions have that Suh guy with Fairley, Stafford, Best.. I am tellin ya, fourth place here we come."
Amethyst: "The Packers have already shown trouble with their line. I heard they have allowed like ten sacks in the first two preseason games. Maybe they won't be so good this year?"
Objector: " I like that Aaron Rodgers, he is cute."
Angry Fists: "What does it matter any way. The Metrodome lease is up. No way the legislators will back a new stadium in this economy. They're going to be terrible for Los Angeles by next year."
Amethyst: "They are working out a deal as we speak. The NFL wants football in the Twin Cities."
Objector: "Why don't they just borrow Target Field? It is so pretty."
Angry Fists: "The Vikings will be terrible this year and then gone. We won't win six games with this crew. Back in the day when we were really good it was because of our offensive line. Remember guys like Ed White, Ron Yary, Mick Tinglehoff, Milt Sundae. And the next generation had Randall McDaniel. What do we have now? Chris DeGeare and Phil Loadholt? Tell me how they are going to help us win? Ryan Cook? And the defensive line. And the secondary. Cedric Griffin has two torn ACLs, we have no-name safeties, Ray Edwards is gone, so is Pat Williams. We will be terrible."
Amethyst: "Guys will step up. They always do. Did you see Marcus Sherels' interception return? Did you watch Everson Griffen and Cedric Griffin? They both looked good. And we are going to have the Henderson brothers playing together at linebacker! Stop raining on the parade before it starts."
Objector: "I like parades."
Amethyst: "Guys like you are a dime a dozen. Complain and complain so that you can say 'I told you so' if we play bad. If we play well, then you jump on the wagon and claim your undying love for the team. True fans support the home team, period. Being a fan means sometimes not listening to logic and going forward with hope."
Angry Fists: "That and a quarter will get you a phone call. We need linemen. Blind fans like you are called homers, you know, see everything through purple glasses. Even though there is no line, you will be happy. We could lose the first four games and you will say it's getting better. I pay hundreds of dollars out of my pocket each game for season tickets and I have the right to complain. I have waited over thirty years for a Super Bowl and we are going in the wrong direction."
Objector: "It is just a game, right?"
It was the worst of times. Or is.
A 6-10 year was difficult to swallow. Given the success of the 2009 Vikings many found the 2010 season upsetting. Brett Favre was battered like Archie Manning, due in part to a offensive line that seemed to scream "Where is Matt Birk?". Favre's response to the attack was to throw interceptions or fumble in his own end zone (against a visiting Dolphins). The two tackles did not have success against the better pass-rushers in the NFL such as Julius Peppers or Clay Matthews. The defensive secondary minus Cedric Griffin and the hope of a talented Chris Cook was awful. The defensive front seemed to take half of the season off in terms of a pass rush. But we persevere as the fan. Better times are ahead, right?
Now we face this weekend's championship game with the knowledge that our two most hated rivals, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, are this year's best in the NFC. It is not the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, or any East team. The NFC North is a powerhouse. Don't laugh, we have sent three of the last four finalists to the NFC Championship. Five of the last ten teams. Unfortunately, it has been mostly Chicago and Green Bay.
We can rationalize our failure in 2010 as a product of our two rivals' success. After all, we were 6-6 against the rest of the NFL. Only the games versus the Giants was as lopsided a loss as matches with the Bears and Packers, and that was one with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. We were closer against the Saints, Patriots, and Jets in other losses. But that defensive mechanism does not take away the reality that our division is tough right now.
I reluctantly tip my cap to the two teams. Green Bay has awoke with an offense that is quite impressive. Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback Minnesota wished it had. The Dom Capers' defense has improved as those cheesy blowhard fans had predicted. Now, they seem to have found a punishing running back in James Starks. No, he is not Adrian Peterson. But he also is not Ryan Grant, to the betterment of Green Bay.
The Chicago Bears have arisen thanks to their defense. There is enough hands now on the offense that Jay Cutler's missiles find targets. The line gets enough of a push to allow Matt Forte chances at yardage. But the defense shows up religiously. Twelve times this season they have surrendered twenty of fewer points, including eight of their first nine games (the exception being twenty-three). Only the loss to the Patriots suggested this season that the Bears might be vulnerable defensively.
We are left with cheering for the winner of this Sunday's game in the Super Bowl. As much as I despise the thought, I certainly would prefer that one of the two defeat the winner of the AFC Championship. An NFC win would be further proof that the 2010 's demise was as much a result of our division's toughness as any ineptness. Not that it is comforting knowing the Bears and Packers are really good right now.
It certainly is not.
Like a good (I use that term loosely) Rocky movie, the Vikings face the Patriots as a decided underdog. Brett Favre is injured and questionable to start Sunday's game. The Vikings are suffering defensively from the absence of Cedric Griffin. There is no pass rush as teams have found a way to minimize the Vikings' front four. At 2-4, Minnesota trails both Chicago and Green Bay by a game and a half. And now the team is on the road, where they are 0-3, having lost to the Saints, Jets, and Packers.
New England is undefeated at home. They are scoring nearly thirty points a game. Tom Brady has thrown for eleven touchdowns with only four interceptions. Wes Welker is back, as healthy as ever. Deon Branch has replaced Randy Moss quite nicely, having thirteen catches for one hundred thirty-seven yards and a touchdown in two games. The Patriots defense has stopped the run better than Minnesota in its' first six games.
It looks tough for Minnesota to pull off an upset.....
Adrian Peterson is back in 2010. Presently AP is on pace for near 2,000 yards, averaging just short of 5 yards a carry. Peterson is on pace for nearly 50 catches. He has no fumbles to his name in six games. While the Minnesota offense has stalled through the air, they are averaging nearly 137 yards on the ground per game. He looks better than ever.
For Minnesota to pull off an Italian Stallion type effort it will have to rely on Adrian Peterson. That is not to say Minnesota should not throw. On the contrary, New England has surrendered over 280 yards per game through the air, and the Vikings will need to exploit that shortcoming. Hopefully, Randy Moss will be given opportunities to burn his so-recently-former teammates. Favre will almost certainly be at the helm, and he will need a performance closer to 2009 than 2010. But the Vikings' strength so far this year is Peterson. He has totaled 828 yards (running and receiving) in six games, or 138 yards per game.
Minnesota has lost many close games so far this year. An optimist would say that the Vikings were in each game, and could easily be undefeated as opposed to 2-4. A pessimist would say the offense is sputtering through the air, and that we deserve our present record.
One thing is for certain today. If Minnesota pulls off the Rocky-like upset, it will be because of Adrian. Peterson has 157 touches of the ball in the first six games, or more than 26 a game. He may need more today.
Minnesota is desperate, Favre a question mark, and the defense a little suspect. The Vikings need to reach inward and find what has been missing in so many games so far this season. They need a little extra. They need ,,, me?
I will make my first call of the year...
Minnesota 27 New England 24.
The Vikings in two short weeks have gone from "What's Happening?" back to "Great Expectations". Sure, Minnesota is only 2-3 and still trails Chicago by 1 1/2 games. In addition, Green Bay is presently ahead of the Vikings by a 1/2 game and will host Minnesota on Sunday Night. Why would there be reason to be optimistic given this scenario? Let's examine...
Minnesota is 2-3. Lying ahead are games at Green Bay and a game at New England the following week. Most predict Minnesota will be 3-4 at best after the two games. But after that the schedule softens some. The Vikings only home loss was to the Dolphins, who then proceeded to beat the Packers in their home as well. Both were close games. Minnesota will have better success after the first half of their schedule, which most agree was one of the toughest assignments in the NFL. The toughest opponent in the second half appears to be the Giants, and that game is at home. Four games will be against North foes, where Minnesota has shown domination in recent times. Add Buffalo and Arizona at home and there is reason to hope.
Meanwhile the Packers are decimated by injuries. Key losses have changed the face of a good team. Gone are Ryan Grant (a bit overrated anyway), JerMichael Finley, Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, and a host of others including defensive linemen and backs. Brian Poppinga the outside linebacker is also hurt. Even star Clay Matthews has been slowed by a hamstring issue. Add to that a sign that Aaron Rodgers can be rattled with pressure and Green Bay looks vulnerable.Throw in the fact that their next five games include Minnesota twice, on the road to the New York Jets, Dallas, and a road trip to Atlanta, and suddenly the Packers are not so favorable. Late in the season they face the Giants and Patriots.
The Chicago Bears have come out strong to start the season. But looking ahead at the second half schedule, the Bears have only one opponent that would be considered "easy", and that is the Lions in Detroit. We should be reminded that this 4-2 Chicago team barely beat the Lions at home due to Calvin Johnson's need to flip touchdown catches rather than contain them. A cynic might expect the Bears to crumble in the second half. It is conceivable that they finish with at minimum a losing second half record. Jay Cutler continues to be erratic, and Chicago has lost two if its' last three. It might be worse.
Minnesota has made efforts to get better. By adding Randy Moss the team has addressed their biggest need. Brett Favre's passer rating is starting to heat up, as he looks to pass the Sam Bradford's of the league and return to a level of Rodgers or Drew Brees. We saw a glimpse of this in the New York Jets game, where the offense exploded in the second half. In the Cowboys game, we saw just enough to get a win. In both games it was evident that Percy Harvin will play a valuable role in the return of a successful passing game. With the way Adrian Peterson is running in 2010, we are confident that the running game is there. The offense is improving.
The defense is playing outstanding. The loss of Cedric Griffin the one sore spot in a remarkable effort to date. Lito Sheppard was torched repeatedly by Tony Romo and Roy Williams last week, but I expect the Vikings' brass to identify and treat this issue before Sunday's game. Chad Greenway is playing at an All-Pro level. If the defensive line can find their sack 'stride' Minnesota's defense will be considered possibly the best in the league.
A few weeks ago it appeared that the Vikings were destined to the basement of the division. Now, as we near the halfway point of the season, fortune has smiled upon the team and opened doorways to the top. To succeed in 2010 Minnesota will have to take advantage of this opportunity, defeat their Northern rivals head-to-head, and watch as they fall maybe as fast as we rise. Despite a lack of a solid start to the season, the stairway to the division lead appears to be available...
Can Minnesota seize this opportunity? We may find out Sunday Night.
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