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.
Coming off of the loss in Seattle, Minnesota finds itself at 5-4 and facing a difficult schedule. In fact, besides the road game at St. Louis ahead, this home game vs. the Lions might be the only game in which the Vikings will be near favored. (Oddsmakers are actually favoring Detroit by a little). And they will play without Percy Harvin, out with an ankle injury.
I have listened to my fellow Vikings' fans lament the play of Christian Ponder. And truthfully, he has been awful. Ponder helped the Vikings get off to a fast start by reducing mistakes, finding Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, and escaping the rush well enough to avoid sacks. But lately he has faltered. Ponder did not throw an interception in the first four games, where Minnesota went 3-1. In the last five games Ponder has thrown eight interceptions and Minnesota is 2-3 in those games. Ponder was sacked nine times in the 4-1 start, 14 times in the 1-3 stretch we have just endured.
But as any coach or knowledgeable fan knows, there is much that is hidden. From the television angle, I can see pass rushes are now getting through our line. Recently I have watched replays where John Sullivan,Charlie Johnson, Brandon Fusco, and Phil Loadholt have been beaten. Blitzes are not being picked up by running backs and/or tight ends. Even phenom Matt Kalil has allowed hits to Ponder. Opposing defenses are pressuring Ponder. Other than Harvin, no one else appears to getting open regularly. If quarterbacks face pressure without open receivers it gets ugly quickly. Just ask Michael Vick.
And the defense is suffering from the lack of passing offense. The Vikings have surrendered 30 or more points in their last three losses to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Seattle.Those teams are 23rd, 13th, and 32nd in passing offense. And that has not mattered because it has been through running games that Minnesota has collapsed. Against Washington Robert Griffin III slipped through countless tackles on his way to 138 yards in only 13 carries. Doug Martin did the same in his 135 yards on 29 carries (which turns out not so bad compared to other Martin games). And there is no shame in allowing Marshawn Lynch 124 yards on 26 carries, other than that means you do not have the ball. Inability to stop the run is the death of many teams.
And excuses are available. The defensive secondary misses the play of Chris Cook and Mistral Raymond until recent. Cook was having a great year and that freed up guys like Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford to make tackles. Josh Robinson, along with others, is raw and will be beaten at times.
Losing to ground games is often at the fault of the 'front seven'. In the case of RGIII, the front four needs to contain him within the rush and often a linebacker is assigned to quicker QBs. Neither did their job. It seemed in the loss to the Bucs and Seahawks that linebackers were simply missing assignments and/or tackles. Chad Greenway tackles so many people that we tend not to see fault in him, but the microscope is on Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley. And one cannot help but wonder if the "have to get that sack" mentality of Jared Allen and Brian Robison is negatively impacting the run defense, as most yardage allowed appears to be leaning to the outside gaps.
Fast forward to today. At 5-4, and this being the easiest of the three remaining home games,today's game vs. the Lions becomes a must win to entertain a winning season or slim remaining playoff hope. Having beaten them earlier in the season Minnesota should have a winning recipe. Contain the run and put pressure on Stafford with the front four. Offensively, do enough with the passing game to allow Adrian Peterson just a little wiggle room. And avoid mistakes in your own territory.
With Percy Harvin out that job just became harder. Harvin has been electric in all aspects of his game. Harvin is on pace to shatter personal receiving records in this his fourth year. While his receiving efforts are probably most missed today, the idea of not having Harvin return kickoffs is also disheartening, He was averaging almost 36 yards per return, with four returns over forty plus yards in sixteen attempts.
Can Minnesota right the ship with a season sweep of the Lions? Without Harvin, it appears that the job of kick off returning us to winning football just became available. Marcus Sherels, the punt returner, appears to be most likely to have that chance. And this also means someone like Jerome Simpson. Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu, or Kyle Rudolph will have to pick up the slack receiving.
Because Lord knows Adrian Peterson cannot do it all.
Numbers lie sometimes. I know when I watch the presidential debates numbers can say just about anything. The same economy can show growth or recession depending on view point. Or like in the upcoming Nov. 6, Rockford referendum, I have watched opposition to passing the upcoming referendum become quite creative in explaining why they refuse to support their children in education. Somehow, being 137th out of 156 (something like that) is a good thing when paying property tax toward schooling. Never mind that nearby Delano and Buffalo kids get two or three times as much money from citizens. They can twist numbers faster than Adrian Peterson runs through a five hole.
And so looking at the team statistics of Sunday's game one can be fooled. The overall yards were 356 to 209 in favor of Arizona. Arizona had 21 first downs to a mere 12 by the Vikings. The Cardinals held the ball for over 35 minutes in the game, compared to just under 25 for Minnesota. Christian Ponder threw for 58 yards. You would think we lost by a few touchdowns.
I could pull up numbers in such a way that you would know Minnesota won. Like Adrian Peterson running 23 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. Or that the defense managed seven sacks and two turnovers. Or holding Arizona to 50% in the red zone. The Vikings being 100% in the red zone. Or 82 penalty yards vs. Arizona compared to 35 vs. Minnesota.The Cardinals 0-2 on 4th downs..
Yes, there are numbers that can say anything.
But the brightest number is the 5-2 record we now hold. There are only a few teams in the entire NFL who can claim better (Atlanta, Houston, Chicago). If the playoffs magically began today our Vikings would be in. But there is much more football to play.
The NFC North presently has the best overall record in football. Barring a tie on Monday Night, the NFC North's overall record will be 16-10. The next closest divisional overall record is the NFC West at 16-12. The only other winning division is the NFC East at 14-12.
We have our work cut out for us.
Cynics will point to the schedule ahead. The Packers are hot. The Bears are too. They are four of our remaining nine games. Add Houston and Seattle, and we have a tough road ahead.
One set of numbers I believe that lie less than others is points for vs. points against. In a single game it is crucial. Over a half of a season it is a trend. The present plus/minus leaders in the NFL are as follows (with record in parentheses):
1. Houston (6-1) + 88
2. Chicago (4-1) + 78
3. New York Giants (5-2) + 68
4. San Francisco (5-2) + 65
5. Atlanta (6-0) + 58
6. New England (4-3) + 54
7. Minnesota (5-2) + 36
8. Green Bay (4-3) + 29
9. Baltimore (5-2) + 13
10. San Diego (3-3) + 11
11. Seattle (4-3) + 10
12. Pittsburgh (3-3) + 8
13. Arizona (4-3) + 6
14. Miami (3-3) +3
Strength of schedule play an important role in this statistic, but you can only beat whom you play. At the end of seven weeks, Minnesota has done admirably vs. their schedule. And with the upcoming game Thursday vs. Tampa Bay, Minnesota can solidify its' hold on a playoff spot. For now..
And for all the Christian Ponder worriers/haters remember, it is his 2nd year in the league. Last week he threw for 350 yards and we lost. Maybe his role is more to balance an attack then lead it. I would think our money be best invested in AP and that offensive line.
Running parting one line thoughts...
Save a little love for Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, and Brian Robison. They are coming on.
Has a safety ever had so much positive impact in Minnesota history as Harrison Smith's rookie season?
Did Chris Cook really just shut down Larry Fitzgerald?
Is Stephens-Howling related to Barry Sanders or did we struggle tackling?
Did we have six three and outs in 2nd half because of poor coaching or fear of mistakes?
Was our 1-10 3rd down efforts someone's fault? How do you win getting 10% 3rd down conversions?
Was Percy Harvin's TD return that was nullified a mental set back?
How did Arizona start 4-0?
When we dissected the schedule in the summer, we all knew that the first half was better than the second. Home games vs. the Jaguars, Titans, Cardinals, and Bucs were winnable. And then there was the powerful 49ers, who most assumed would defeat us along with road games vs. Redskins and Lions. Naturally, we would win the game vs. the Colts.Sic.
A 5-3 start. Possible, with five home games. (Sure, most people thought we would not be any better than last year's 3-13 team. Naysayers were baying 4-12 and 2-14. But we eternal purple optimists could see a better season. And the purple kool-aid drinkers envisioned the playoffs; like they do every year.) We knew then the schedule changed like the beginning of a Minnesota winter. Games at Seattle, Chicago, Green Bay, and later Houston. Home games against our division rivals. Only a single game in St. Louis appeared plausible for an easy win,
Maybe a 2-6 finish, given winning at least one home game vs. division. That was the thinking. A 7-9 season would be an improvement. Hope for the future. And realistic. Maybe 6-10 or 8-8 if things worked out well or not. A good year compared to the last few.
But something happened in 2012. Like magic. Maybe it was the community leaders rallying behind the team and helping pass the stadium bill. Maybe it was maturation of young players, or the addition of even younger. The front office? Leslie Frazier? Whatever happened, we got back our defense. The good one.
You noticed it Game One vs. Jacksonville. Maybe not so much Game Two vs. the Colts. But when Minnesota held both the 49ers and Lions to thirteen points, you knew. The Titans' win affirmed the obvious: we have a very good defense in 2012. Even in the 38-26 loss to Washington, two TDs came off of Christian Ponder turnovers deep in our territory. And only the immensely talented Robert Griffin III could run for 138 yards and two scores. Alfred Morris was bottled up. The Redskins threw for under 200 yards.
(Interesting to note that our two losses have come to the top two rookie quarterbacks.)
And now we enter the game vs. Arizona with expectations of winning. And certainly we will be favored against Tampa Bay the following Thursday. Two wins and we would end the first half 6-2. At 6-2 we would need a 4-4 finish to dream playoffs...
Suddenly the purple kool-aid has tainted the well. I see Christian Ponder returning to protecting the football, and trading 350 yard games for ball control. I see Jerome Simpson returning to the lineup, staying there, and producing down field. I see Adrian Peterson taking over the NFL rushing lead as he remains injury free all year (including recent ankle). Matt Kalil All-Pro in his rookie season. Jared Allen going nuts with sacks. Chad Greenway tackling everyone. Harrison Smith making a difference.Solid cornerback play. Winning all three division home games in the second half. Lots of Percy Harvin...
I am finding it difficult to remember just how bad we were last year. I know there were close games early, but after that it is hazy..
I may have a fever.
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.
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