Two roads converge in Chicago on Sunday, and the Vikings will take one. But which one?
The first, as you recall, defeated the big, bad 49ers 24-13. They swept the Lions by a score of 54-37 in two games. And they beat the Jaguars, Titans, and Cardinals as they should have.That is the team led by Adrian Peterson, at 5.8 yards a carry. It is the team that features Christian Ponder not turning the ball over. All this accented by a hard hitting, aggressive defense which creates turnovers and makes sacks. Names like Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Antoine Winfield, and Harrison Smith clutter the media broadcast.
The second, not as fair, is the one that suffered double-digit losses to Washington, Tampa Bay (at home), and Seattle. And was unable to hold on to a victory in Indianapolis. That team often allows sacks, throws interceptions, gives up first downs on third, and cannot seem to bring down elusive backs. This team does not seem to find Kyle Rudolph. This team sees OL on their backs or staring at their fallen quarterback.That team is the one most fresh in fans minds, given the present 2-3 record in the last five games.
And the two paths converge upon Chicago, where the Bears are coming off of a pair of rancid offensive games. Jay Cutler has been out with a concussion, and Jason Campbell is reminding teams why counting on old, slow, and weak-armed reserve-quarterbacks can be dangerous.The celebrated Bears' defense torched on national television last Monday Night. The Chicago offensive line looking more battered than a Mike Tyson opponent, the early years.
Vikings' fans are hoping Cutler is not ready. Maybe praying. Cutler has his faults, but defenses must respect his strong arm. And their is a gritty toughness about him that seems to be of leadership quality. Even when throwing an occasional interception. With Matt Forte, Chicago usually gets something on the ground or through the short passing game. It is the opportunistic Bears' defense that often feels like more of an offense than their own offense. Or their opponents' offense. That is often enough to win in the NFL. The Bears used this formula for a 7-1 start.
Many predict Chicago will play extra angry.
There is no doubt this is a crucial game for Minnesota's hope for the playoffs. They have a tough schedule ahead. Splitting games with Chicago and Green Bay will not be enough. A win this Sunday and the path to the playoffs suddenly becomes alive. A loss and the path to a .500 season looms. Given the 3-13 season last year this is progress either way. But in the modern NFL, teams turn around much more quickly than in the past. Just ask the 49ers of 2011. They improved by a total of seven games in a single season. It can be done.
Two paths will leave the Windy City. It is my hope that we choose the one where we win.
Because that will make all the difference.
Percy Harvin made a statement instantly. Jerome Felton made a key block on the outside and he was gone. Minnesota would take a 7-0 lead in seconds. Later in the game, Marcus Sherels, refusing to fair catch in traffic, shook off a few arm tackles and raced into the endzone as well. Two return touchdowns and a 20-13 win over Detroit.
I cannot recall a game where Minnesota returned both a kickoff and a punt in the same game. And while I can recall games where the Vikings have won without scoring an offensive TD, it has been a long while. The 2009 and 1998 NFC Championship teams both featured outstanding offenses with parts of a good defense. But how long since 10-3 wins? Take away the returns and Minnesota's offense produced two field goals. Six points and a victory.
Adrian Peterson kept the possession clock near even as he carved through the Lions defense. Christian Ponder avoided mistakes. Add a gutsy call by Bill Musgrave late in the game passing to new 2012 addition Jerome Simpson, and you have enough to win this year.
Kudos to everyone associated with the defense. The defensive line had five sacks, Letroy Guion and Everson Griffen each with two. Chad Greenway had eleven tackles, Antoine WInfield deflected passes and had ten tackles. Rookie Harrison Smith saved a touchdown with a hard hit on Calvin Johnson.Josh Robinson looked good in coverage. A total team defensive effort.
And that is what has been missing since the domination of the 1970s. Sure we have had many playoff teams, great offenses, but when it came to playoff games we could not stop the best teams in the NFL. Not sure who to thank, or if it will last, but for right now Minnesota is winning with a hard-hitting defense.
Like old times.
Fingers will stop pointing at Leslie Frazier, as he raises his Northern record to 1-8. The team is playing hard. Adrian is running like a purple beast. Percy Harvin continues to electrify the fan base. And we have a good pass rush with a run stopping front seven. If these young defensive backs like Smith, Robinson, and Chris Cook keep improving, we might just get cocky.
It is good to be a (Vi)King again...
I grew up in the 1970s watching the Vikings dominate regular seasons and early playoffs. My first impressions of rival division teams were not good. The Packers were horrible. The Bears so bad that their quarterback was their best rusher in an era where QBs stayed in the pocket. And then there was Detroit. I had been told by adults it was a once proud organization, but I never witnessed that. The Lions were an afterthought mostly in those days.
The last few seasons have given me a chance to sympathize more with those losing teams. How many times last year were we "in" games, only to lose in the second half? Sometimes teams can play well and lose. Often. A fortuitous bounce, a bad call can bring a swift change in momentum. Other times teams deserve to lose.
Minnesota's effort last week vs. the 49ers was one in which I would have been happy win or lose. We had a swagger about the defense. We stopped our opponent repeatedly late in the game. We won by being the more physical team. It reminded me of those teams from the 1970s. The ones we expected to win.
Now heading to Detroit we must do the same. The Lions are reeling from their 44-41 OT loss at Tennessee. They have issues with injuries. Their pass defense is ranked 20th. They have surrendered over 31 points per game. They are a loss waiting to happen if someone comes in playing well. And that is how Minnesota played last week. Against a tough team, the Vikings moved the ball, hit hard, and played smart. They will need to do it again as the Lions have to realize the severity in which they need this divisional win so early in the season.
What is that winning formula?
1. Run Adrian Peterson. AP has 58 carries after three games for 230 yards and two touchdowns. He is running hard. With Toby Gerhart' suffering from a ball-handling sickness last week, Minnesota will need Peterson early and often.
2. Continue to utilize Kyle Rudolph. Christian Ponder has looked good, and Rudolph is probably the best target near the end zone. Rudolph has three TDs already, and is much in the same mold as TEs like the Saints' Jimmy Graham and the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski. Now with Jerome Simpson joining Percy Harvin Minnesota appears more dangerous through the air. Pass protective defenses tend to have more troubles matching up with tight ends. And now Minnesota has a very good one.
3. A strong pass rush. Minnesota is holding opponents to less than twenty points a game, and our pass defense is a big reason why. Losing Mistral Raymond is tough, but Jamarca Sanford seemed to step up nicely in his replacement. But the secondary is mostly young and inexperienced outside of Antoine Winfield. The best way to keep defensive backs unexposed is to provide a good pass rush. And Minnesota has done just that. Kevin Williams looks strong once again, Jared Allen sniffing sacks on nearly every pass, and solid contributions from the others. Even the linebackers look good in blitz or pass coverage. Better than in a long time.
4. Toughness. Cliche's aside, that is what has been missing. Mental and physical toughness win games. From the 7th grade team I coach to the high school, college, and professionals we watch. Whoever hits harder, fights through being hurt, or sucks it up when they are exhausted seems to come out ahead. The Purple People Eaters had it, famous for longevity, toughness, and instilling fear. I want that back.
This week Minnesota may further grow in their learning how to be a winning team again. They may not. But if they play like last week it will be something even more. It will be the return of winning-type football.
And that is what we have been missing for a couple of years.
It usually is a hot summer, the kids have run out of things to do. Bored, stifling heat, no end in sight.. and then wham! In comes Kool Aid to make the summer fun again. Drinks for everyone. Mom is relieved.
The second game of the preseason is a chance for starters to play a half or so, second and third stringers to make some plays to determine their future, and a general non-concern for the scoreboard. In the Vikings case, team and fans wanted to see if the return of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Antoine Winfield could improve the porous effort of week one vs. the 49ers. They did.
It is an opportunity to see if Christian Ponder can move the offense AND score touchdowns, something that did not happen week one. He did. Ponder had a great touch and pocket presence and moved the Vikings easily down the field. He found fullback Jerome Felton for a short TD pass.
Could Jerome Simpson do something spectacular? He did. A long pass play set up the first preseason touchdown that involved Simpson hurdling over a defender in full stride.
And then it is time for Vikings' fans to latch onto someone from the depths of the charts. Someone to cheer for to make the team, an underdog. Meet linebacker Audie Cole. Late in the game Cole, while being touted by local TV announcers, made them look like geniuses by picking off two passes in a row, and returning them both for defensive touchdowns.
If it were not for the injury that took away Kyle Rudolph during the game, one would think it was a perfect preseason game. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh was knocking kickoffs through the goal posts, drilling near fifty yard field goals with ease, and forcing us to forget last year's kicker, whoever he was. Safety Harrison Smith, the first round pick from Notre Dame who is supposed to help turn around a notoriously bad secondary, made a big play breaking up a pass during a blitz. Rookie cornerback Josh Robinson exciting everyone with his quickness. The sudden depth at linebacker, with tons of tackles from Larry Dean and Tyrone McKenzie and of course, Audie Cole's interception returns for touchdowns thirteen seconds apart.
Mired in the NFC North, where seemingly all other teams are great, Minnesota has a long road ahead of themselves in returning to the playoffs. Though there has been teams to turn around fortune quickly in this modern day of free agents and salary limitations, knowledgeable fans are aware that the Packer are impressive. The Lions young and hungry. The Bears steady and strong. Time to be patient, right?
And that is when Kool-Aid busts in, covered in purple and says chin up. Times are better. Think playoffs now. The 49ers did it. Why can't we? You have elite talent in Ponder, Harvin and Simpson. And do not forget Adrian Peterson, not only the best running back in the NFL, but also the best healer. And while the defense is suspect, there is a talented young group that will play very hard.
We are hot. We are bored. There is no harm in having a little of the kool-aid.
Let's begin with the first step. We (as fans) are powerless over the team. No matter how hard I cheer, how much I swear, or whatever I throw, the game is out of my control. In order for their to be a change, we have to accept this fact.
The 3-13 season an abomination. Well, after the 6-10 season of 2010 it is more a downward spiral. All this after coming a couple of plays (or thugs) from being in the 2009-10 Super Bowl. Left staring at the mess that was once among the most feared in the NFL. No more Brett Favre. Half the Williams wall gone. Offensive linemen, wide receivers, linebackers gone. Some remain. But not the same team that should have beat the Saints that fateful game two seasons ago.
I suppose inventory should be taken. it is an important step. What do we have?
The first thing that comes to mind is RB Adrian Peterson. Drafted in 2007, he has been almost saint-like, were it not for a fumbling spell a few years ago, and the recent injury, he might already be canonized. He ran for 296 yards in a single game his rookie year. He has amassed nearly 7,000 yards in five seasons. And 80 rushing touchdowns. All that despite starting only 66 of the 80 games. Playing in 73. If he continues at this pace he will pass Chuck Foreman in the minds of the fans as the greatest VIkings RB ever. For some, he already has.
Percy Harvin is the other offensive skill player that most trust. Taken 22nd in the 2009 draft, Harvin has been electrifying on game days. He won Rookie of the Year honors. He has played in 45 of the 48 potential season games, catching 218 passes for over 2,600 yards. And he has been magnificent in kick returns. And he can run the ball. Only migraine headaches stand in the way of future All-Pro seasons.
Question marks loom over much of the remaining offense. WIll Christian Ponder's game reach a higher level? Will Jerome Simpson contribute at wide receiver? Can Kyle Rudolph replace and exceed the efforts of the departed Shiancoe? And maybe the biggest question, will the offensive line get better? Was the drafting of LT Matt Kalil a sign that the OL can return to its' dominance via the run, and provide enough protection to let Ponder loose?
Yes, lots of questions on offense. Defenisvely, there are maybe even bigger questions.
It appears the defensive line is in order, and with veterans Jared Allen and Kevin Williams returning, one of the better in the league. Names like Brian Robison, Letroy Guion, Christian Ballard, and Fred Evans demonstrate solid depth. Not quite the 1970s Purple People Eaters, but on a 3-13 team maybe a bright spot.
It is the other seven that concern fans. And rightly so. Looking at linebackers, Chad Greenway has been more than good at SLB. Erin Henderson made improvements at WLB last year. This year's MLB is Jasper Brinkley, who has shown flashes, but is not quite the star power as the departed E.J. Henderson. It is as no-name a set of linebackers as I can recall in all my years of fanship.
Worse yet, it the present secondary. The names kepe changing at cornerback, and safety, yet the results have been the same for years now. Antoine Winfield, the run-tackling extrodanairre, is back at one CB spot. Chris Cook occupies the other. The safety spots appear unsettled, with my money on Harrison Smith, the rookie from Notre Dame, eventually inheriting the free safety spot. Mistral Raymond may win the strong safety job. Others defensive backs in the mix include: Chris Carr, Marcus Sherels, JarMarca Sanford, Eric Frampton, Josh Robinson, Brandon Burton, Robert Blanton, Zack Bowman and more.. In early training camp, anyone who has ever played DB is getting looked at somewhere.
So how does a team recover from a three win season when the parts haven't necessarily been replaced?
This season marks the 5th time Minnesota has had to start the season following one with three losses or less. Three of those seasons occurred in early Vikes history. Our opening season (1961) we were 3-11. The next we were 2-11-1. The team improved to 5-8-1 in year three, became a winning team in year four. But when Bud Grant joined in year seven we were coming off a 4-9-1 season. His first year, 1967, we went 3-8-3. We then completely turned our program around. We went to the playoffs the following for years.
How did that change happen? A new coach (Grant) used to winning changed mentality. We traded our star (Tarkenton) and received numerous early picks which we parlayed with our own choices into a playoff team. In 1967 we drafted RB Clinton Jones, WR Gene Washington, DT Alan Page, DB Bobby Bryant, and WR Bob Grim. The next year we added LT Ron Yary, DB Charlie West, and RB Oscar Reed. We would add OG Ed White in 1969. The dynasty had begun.
Later, in 1984, the team fell to 3-13 under Les Steckel.. The next year Minnesota rebounded to 7-9 with Grant returning. Then in 1986 we finsihed 9-7 under new coach Jerry Burns where the Vikings traded for Anthony Carter and Gary Zimmerman. What followed was a three year playoff run. The draft of 1985 had produced this year's Hall of Fame Viking representative: Chris Doleman.
The class of 2012 includes three or four players who could have the same type of impact. And a fancy new kicker to boot. Our past suggest that the GM and front office people will play an important part in our recovery, whether it is the typical 2-3 year wait to return to the playoffs, or if that can be sped up, or worse, slowed down.
So our recovery begins with hope. Minnesota has 25 playoff visits in its' 51 years. We have 17 division championships. Four conference championships. Since thise early years we have been a steady successsful program. Will administration do their part in helping us to return to our roots?
Because it is time for them to step up.
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