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 was hard to believe, what we saw that is. I am a Vikings' optimist, but I did not see us dominating in such a way as to feel confident. And yet as Toby Gerhart handed his old coach chance after chance, I knew we would still hold.
Minnesota's defense held San Francisco to 280 total yards. They rushed for a mere 89. They sacked Alex Smith three times, with Jared Allen's first seasonal sack and forced fumble sealing the game. Or was it Josh Robinson's late pick? Whichever, the Vikings won despite punting or fumbling their last five offensive series.
It was mostly defense that gave fans a sudden swagger. Chad Greenway was everywhere, totaling 13 tackles. Alex Smith was pressured repeatedly by the defensive line, forcing incompletions where touchdowns used to exist. And the secondary played well. Really. Well, except for a few near plays.
This case in point was highlighted by the Purple's response to the 94-yard kick return by the 49ers' Williams in the early 2nd half. Minnesota held San Francisco to a field goal, gaining only three yards. Then, the 49ers marched 86 yards and scored a touchdown in the subsequent possession. It was beginning to look like our formula for losing in early 2011. But not this year.. The last five 49ers' drives netted 65 yards combined, with three turnovers, two punts, and a rare 'three-and-out'. Minnesota proudly diplayed a tough defense. All game.
Last week's loss to the Colts had most of us feeling sour. A golden opportunity to go 2-0 wasted. The pessimists took over. They chastised Frazier and Musgrave. They wondered about Christian Ponder. And they lamented about the defense.
Where are they now?
Yes, I know, do not get too excited, it is only three weeks into a season coming off of two losing ones. But did you see some of the statistics of this game? How about the fact that Minnesota held the ball for 33:28 compared to 26:32 for the 49ers. We had 25 first downs. We were 7-14 in 3rd down conversions. Adrian Peterson had 107 total yards. Percy Harvin had 98. And Ponder did not get sacked nor intercepted.
Things are finer in Minnesota than they have been in a long time.
** On a sad note, I say farewell to Roger Lipelt. He coached my boys at Providence Academy, and my brother-in-law at Wayzata many years ago. A great man whom I will remember for charitable work, positive outlook, faith, and clever sayings. When I coach the 7th graders I hear myself saying 'this kid could play Fridays or Saturdays'. And I will always remember my boys taking a knee on the sidelines of every Lions' play. Always. Roger made a difference in so many lives.
Roger died of cancer after a glorious battle in which he taught us how to do that, too. Always coaching.
Many people viewed the Green Bay Packers as the team to beat in the NFC North. Others were certain this was the year that the Detroit Lions would finally find their way to the top. But after two weeks in the NFL only one thing is certain: the San Francisco 49ers are better than that. Much better.
The 49ers dealt Green Bay an opening week loss. Last night they handled Detroit. Two weeks, two wins over NFC North teams. And this week they travel to Minnesota. Survivor pools across the country will be looking closely at the game in the Metrodome.
Watching the Bears and Packers play in week two, one could not help but see mediocrity. Without an effective Matt Forte, the Bears offense was relegated to Jay Cutler's whimsical decision-making, tantrums, and an offense that was quite offensive. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and the Lions defensive front were being taught a lesson in toughness.
Minnesota had it much easier. They were in Indianapolis, where the biggest offensive star is a rookie (Andrew Luck) or an aging veteran (Reggie Wayne). No Joseph Addai, no Peyton Manning. But mistakes turned what could have been a 2-0 start into a 1-1 beginning that cried 2011. Some credit must be given to Minnesota for coming back from two touchdowns down, and overcoming the abundant mistakes to tie the game late at 20-20. This week would not be Blair Walsh being the hero, rather Adam "He's just a kicker" Vinatieri. His long field goal gave the Colts a rare win in their rebuild mode and shook the eternal optimists down from their perch a little.
But fear not Vikings' faithful, we are tied for first in the North, and tied for seventh overall. That is because twenty teams are 1-1, while only six are undefeated. After two weeks parody has been established. Given twelve teams make the playoffs, the optimists could point out we are right where we want to be.
Garrison Keillor was wrong. Being average ain't so bad.
It is almost here.
Actually it was here Wednesday, the opening game between the Giants and the Cowboys. Two of my personal 'most-hated' teams in the NFL. Dallas and New York have become staples of NFL television. I watch them both far too often. I really do not care for what happens in the oft-bloated NFL East.
Nor do I care for afternoons of the AFC West. Instead, give me the NFC North. But unless you have a package that provides other game opportunities, or you want to spend Sunday managing the internet and watching from a computer, you basically get what they give you. Maybe that is why I know Oakland and Denver's history better than Chicago or Detroit.
But I digress.
What can we expect in 2012 from our young, recovering Minnesota Vikings? Now minutes away from opening kickoff, most fans I have read, listened, or watched do not expect great things. They realize that Christian Ponder is young and inexperienced. They see Adrian Peterson trying to come back too quickly from a major injury. They scoff at the talent Minnesota displays at wide receiver after Percy Harvin. A defensive backfield too old (Winfield), too young (Smith), or inconsistent (everybody else). Linebackers that make the famous "no-name defense" of Miami seem celebratory.
Their predictions have ranged from no better than 3-13 to a modest 6-10.
And then there is the optimists, blind if unsuccessful, loyal to the end. They see elite talent in Jared Allen, A rejuvenated Kevin Williams, Percy Harvin, Adrian Peterson, and a strong rookie class. They see an 'easy' schedule in the first half of the season. They see Chicago getting old. They see the Packers defense crumbling. They see the Lions as paper tigers. They see what they want to see.
These predictions range from 8-8 to about 11-5 and and a playoff birth. (Even blind homers are realists somewhat, no 13-3 out there).
The funniest part of it all is that most fans on either side will not change their minds after this first game. They will see what they want to see. If the Vikings win, it will be because the Jaguars are bad. It will be because Maurice Jones-Drew held out, or the top tackler was injured. If Minnesota loses, it will be first game jitters for the young ones. Or bad officiating, or play-calling. I find it most humorous that about 1,000,000 Minnesotans feel they are better play callers than Bill Musgrave or Leslie Frazier. Every game. Every year. Except Bud Grant, hallowed be his name.
I will be watching no matter what... Right, honey?
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.
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