Sunday the Vikings begin a three-game stretch that will propel them into contention or turn the rest of the season into a glorified quarterback tryout camp. Here's a comprehensive plan that will enable them to make the playoffs in a conference lacking in impressive wild-card candidates:
1. Transition to Josh Freeman as quickly as possible.
Even when Christian Ponder was at his best, he didn't take full advantage of defenses crowding the line of scrimmage to stop Adrian Peterson. Matt Cassel, while playing well last week, didn't even take full advantage because he threw inaccurately on deep routes.
Whatever his flaws, Freeman is willing and able to throw deep, and he is working with quality receivers. If the Vikings can force defenses to choose between stopping Peterson and stopping the deep passing game, the offense could become unstoppable.
2. Keep Peterson on the field.
Toby Gerhart is a quality backup, but Peterson is the rare back who can make defenses worry about a handoff or screen pass on third-and-10. He's not a great pass-blocker; he makes up for that by being a constant threat. Too often offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave pulls Peterson for a play or a series. He should really stop doing that. Peterson is one of the best-conditioned athletes in all of sports. He can stay on the field.
3. Find a role for Patterson.
It's simplistic to say that rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson should be on the field all the time. Peterson is most productive when running behind fullback Jerome Felton. Kyle Rudolph is a Pro Bowl tight end. Greg Jennings should be the No. 1 receiver, and Jerome Simpson has made the most of his opportunities this season. Put Patterson on the field, and either Felton, Rudolph or Simpson has to come off.
While playing Patterson for a tremendous number of snaps might not make sense, getting him the ball more often when he takes the field is common sense. At the very least, Patterson should be on the field when Felton is not. Patterson might be the second-most-spectacular athlete on the roster, after Peterson. He should play a larger role.
4. Put Bishop on the field.
Vikings linebackers are having a terrible season as a whole. Desmond Bishop might not be the player he once was, he may not even be an every-down linebacker, but he's good enough to start for this defense.
5. Put Rhodes on the field.
Josh Robinson should not be starting at cornerback in the NFL. Rookie Xavier Rhodes might make some mistakes if he replaces Robinson as a starter, but he's a superior athlete who will also make positive plays. Robinson is the weakest link on what has been a mediocre defense.
6. Take advantage of the schedule.
The Vikings are coming off a bye. They should be as healthy as they've been all season, with the return of cornerback Chris Cook and safety Jamarca Sanford. They're playing at home against a mediocre Carolina team. They are required to win today.
If they do, they will be 2-3 when facing a terrible Giants team, and perhaps 3-3 when facing the Packers, without injured defensive star Clay Matthews, at home. If the Vikings can win those three games, they will have given themselves some margin for error when they face their toughest stretch of the season.
7. Take advantage of the division.
The Packers look vulnerable, especially without Matthews. The Lions are having trouble keeping their most valuable player, Calvin Johnson, healthy. The Bears just lost starting linebacker D.J. Williams for the season.
The Vikings have the best non-quarterback in the division, in Peterson. They have what should be a dynamic offense. Their special teams are more than good enough. Their roster is remarkably healthy. Frazier is a defensive coach who should be able to salve some of his team's defensive woes. The division is winnable, and the conference lacks depth.
If the Vikings can't make the playoffs under these circumstances, they should be considered grand disappointments.