And so it comes down to this: If the Vikings beat the Packers on Sunday, they're in the playoffs one year after a disastrous 3-13 season. If they lose, they'll need Chicago, Dallas and the Giants all to lose as well, or else this season becomes yet another disappointing footnote in Vikings history – a surprising six-game improvement over last year, but ultimately, a disappointment.
That Sunday's opponents are the hated rivals from one state to the east just adds to the drama sure to be on display at the Hubert H. Mall of Humphrey America Field. Not that the Vikings-Packers rivalry has been short on theatrics in recent years. Let's take a spin down memory lane and relive some great Metrodome moments in Vikings-Packers history.
2011 – Christian Ponder makes his first start and puts a scare into the undefeated Packers by hitting Michael Jenkins with a 72-yard bomb on the first play from scrimmage. The Packers recover to win 33-27. Donovan McNabb orders take-out from Nye's on the way home.
2010 – The curtain falls on the Brad Childress Era with a 31-3 defeat that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. Brett Favre conducts a memorable postgame interview with himself: "Did I do everything I could to win? Yes. Will I be glad to see Brad Childress go? Maybe. Will I text Jenn Sterger after the game? No comment. I can't believe I'd ask me that question at such a sensitive time. Am I trying to create a schism? It's possible ..."
2009 – Favre exacts revenge on the Packers franchise for not having already erected a statue of him having fun out there like a big kid outside Lambeau Field. The Vikings win 30-23 on Monday Night Football. Crowd noise threatens to tear roof off Metrodome one year before Mother Nature finishes the job.
2005 – Paul Edinger kicks a franchise-record 56-yard field goal at the gun to help the Vikings overcome a 17-0 deficit in a 23-20 victory. Somewhere in Florida, a 15-year-old Blair Walsh is just loosening up his leg.
2004 – Favre turns E.J. Henderson in circles on a game-tying touchdown pass to Donald Driver, and Ryan Longwell sends his future fans home with the worst Christmas present ever, a game-ending 29-yard field goal as the Packers win 34-31. Later that night, Santa Claus detects a haze of alcohol fumes over the metro area and bypasses the Twin Cities altogether.
1997 – The Vikings have a chance to tie the Packers for first place on a Monday night in December, but Brad Johnson wakes up with a numb right arm and Randall Cunningham can't lead the Purple back in a 27-11 loss. "Somehow," Cunningham thinks, "I will find a way to avenge this loss next year."
1995 – Vikings 27, Packers 24. Jeff Brady. T.J. Rubley. If you need more details than that, you're not really a Vikings fan, are you?
1993 – Vikings 15, Packers 13. Jim McMahon. Eric Guliford. Again, if you need more details …
1991 – Jerry Burns' tumultuous tenure as the foul-mouthed captain of the Vikings ship comes to an inglorious end with a 27-7 defeat in the season finale. And it's still not Bob Schnelker's fault.
1987 – The Packers win the first game featuring replacement players as some guy pulled out of the stands at halftime leads Green Bay to a 23-16 victory. The crowd consisted solely of the players' family members and coworkers from down at the factory, and a handful of Twins fans camping out for ALCS tickets.
1986 – Tommy Kramer throws a franchise-record six TD passes in a 42-7 win. Packers fans secretly wish they had a quarterback who could hold his booze that well.
Another chapter will be written in this storied rivalry on Sunday. Buckle up.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @donnelly612.
It’s just one week, but everyone still wants to jump to conclusions about, well, just about everything we saw during the Vikings’ scintillating Week 1 win over the Jaguars. Let’s run down a handful of conclusions one might reach after Sunday, and discuss whether they’re more trend or mirage.
Blair Walsh has ice water in his veins.
Or “intestinal fortitude,” as head coach Leslie Frazier told the media after the game. For a 22-year-old rookie kicking in his first career game, Walsh could not have been more clutch. He calmly knocked down the 55-yarder to force overtime like it was just another routine extra point, then booted the 38-yarder in overtime for the (eventual) win.
Christian Peterson is the Director of Operations at LeagueSafe.com and Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post. He has been a contributor to Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on FM 100.3 KFAN on Saturday mornings during the football season. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
The development of Blair Walsh is one of the most closely monitored storylines of the Vikings' 2012 preseason. And if not for the magical night of Audie Cole, he probably would have been the story of the game on Friday after the Purple took down the Buffalo Bills 36-14.
The Vikings used a sixth-round draft pick in April to secure the services of the former Georgia Bulldog – the first time they've drafted a kicker since they selected the immortal Mike Wood in the eighth round of the 1978 draft. They quickly released stalwart Ryan Longwell, essentially handing the job to the unproven Walsh.
Quick aside: I have a friend who lives in Atlanta and follows the SEC closely. When I saw him last weekend, he said, "I can't (redacted) believe the Vikings drafted that Walsh kid from Georgia!"
My friend's skepticism is warranted. Last season, Walsh converted on just 21 of 35 field goals, including a dismal 5-for-12 effort from 40-to-49 yards. However, Walsh hit on 40 of 45 attempts as a sophomore and junior, and the Vikings thought they saw a flaw in his mechanics during his senior season, a flaw they were convinced they could fix.
Two (preseason) games into Walsh's professional career, the Vikings' hunch appears to be paying off. Last week, he went 2-for-2 on field goals of 26 and 39 yards and handled kickoff duties with aplomb in the notoriously kicker-unfriendly Candlestick Park.
And on Friday night, Walsh moved indoors and had his coming-out party.
He went 5-for-6 on field goal attempts, connecting from 22, 47, 45, 40, and 30 yards out while missing a 49-yarder that he pushed wide right after a shaky snap/hold combination from Cullen Loeffler and Chris Kluwe.
Meanwhile, without another kicker on the roster, Walsh had to handle all nine Minnesota kickoffs, and that's where he really shone. Let's take a closer look at his kickoffs:
1 – 6 yards deep, returned to the 18
2 – squib to 2, returned to the 29
3 – 5 yards deep, returned to the 11
4 – through the end zone
5 – 8 yards deep, not returned
6 – 9 yards deep, not returned
7 – bounced at the 6, picked up 1 yard deep, returned to the 11
8 – fielded at the 4, returned to the 26
9 – through the uprights
Yes, you read that right – his final kickoff went through the uprights, a 75-yard bomb that split the posts and sent the few remaining fans into a frenzy. What made that even more impressive is that it was his third kickoff in about 10 minutes of actual clock time, thanks to Cole's touchdowns on consecutive plays.
He also hit all three of his extra-point attempts. And he did it all without the benefit of Mitch Berger's performance-enhancing Snickers.
After the game, Walsh told KFAN sideline reporter Greg Coleman that he took his eyes off the ball on his second kickoff, resulting in a squib kick that yielded Buffalo's best return of the night. A rookie mistake – hey, he's human – but on the other eight kickoffs he proved to be a weapon who will help the Vikings in the crucial field-position battle all season long.
It might be too early to start chiseling Walsh's bust in Canton, but given the team's myriad other concerns, Leslie Frazier and his staff have to be breathing a bit more easily when they ponder the team's kicking game.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, a contributor to the 2012 Vikings Yearbook, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
First, allow myself to explain… myself. This list is not intended to be a list of the 10 best players on the Minnesota Vikings. Everyone knows that Jared Allen is really good, and that he’s going to sack the opposing quarterback roughly once per game. We all understand how good Adrian Peterson is, and that the Vikings offense is infinitely more effective and dynamic when he’s on the field. We know that Antoine Winfield is still one of the best all-around cornerbacks in the NFL when he’s healthy. Obviously, the season will head South in a hurry if Allen stinks, AP isn’t 100%, Winfield gets injured, Matt Kalil goes bust, and Percy Harvin misses time with migraines. So, you won’t see those names on this list. Instead, what you’ll see are the names of the ten players I believe will make or break the Vikings in 2012.
By “make,” let’s assume that the best-case scenario is a playoff berth this year. Barring the unlikely event that every player on this list instantly turns into a Hall of Fame caliber player, the Vikings are a long shot to even make the playoffs, let alone do something crazy like advance to the Super Bowl. So, the playoffs are the upside. “Break” would essentially be the worst-case scenario (i.e. last season). If the Vikings are to make the playoffs, they’ll need their stars to be healthy and productive, and they’ll need huge contributions from the majority of these players. We’ll start with five today in Part I, with the rest to come in Part II.
CB Chris Cook – Cook has more to prove in 2011 than any other Viking, and it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his ability to stay on the field and out of trouble might be the single most important determinant of the team’s success in 2012. It’s obviously too soon to anoint him as anything other than a talented player with potential, but he was undeniably the team’s best cover corner early last year (this highly recommended article by ESPN’s Kevin Seifert shows how dramatically the team’s pass defense collapsed after Cook left the lineup after Week 6). There were other factors (and other injured players) that contributed to the catastrophic 2011 pass defense, but Cook had already stacked up favorably in man-to-man coverage with Calvin Johnson against the Lions in Week 3 and was starting to develop into the shutdown force the Vikings envisioned when they grabbed him with the second pick of the second round of the 2010 draft. If Cook proves capable of covering the Johnsons, Nelsons, and Marshalls of the NFC North, it will allow the Vikings to more easily compensate for other weaknesses in the secondary.
S Harrison Smith – You don’t need me to tell you how awful the Vikings secondary was last year. The focus fell mainly on a rag-tag bunch of cornerbacks that failed miserably to plug the gaping holes left by an injured Antoine Winfield and a suspended Chris Cook, but the team’s safeties were atrocious. Hussain Abdullah was at least somewhere near average, which is extremely high praise in comparison to Mistral Raymond, Tyrell Johnson, and Jamarca Sanford (the latter of which graded out as literally the worst safety in all of football, according to Pro Football Focus). Smith was brought in to start on Day 1, and his ability to provide some sort of presence in the middle of the field – both as a ball-hawk in the secondary and as a run-stuffer in the box – will help dictate how the Vikings stack up against the high-powered passing attacks of the NFC North.
LB Erin Henderson – If Henderson plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder this year, it won’t be hard to determine why. Coming off a breakout season in 2011 that saw him become an NFL starter for the first time and one of the best outside linebackers in the league (according to Pro Football Focus, Henderson graded out as the fourth-best OLB, third-best against the run), Henderson found himself in the awkward position of not being wanted. He made headlines with a public rant about his belief that the Vikings weren’t offering him what he felt he deserved prior to free agency, but when the Vikes called his bluff and then no other teams stepped up to the plate, he signed a team-friendly one-year deal worth “only” $2 million. It’s a prove-it contract for a young player the league obviously doesn’t quite believe in just yet, and you can bet Henderson is out to prove his 2011 wasn’t a fluke. With his brother E.J. no longer part of the equation, Henderson will be asked to continue his improvement in 2012. With the unproven Jasper Brinkley expected to take over at middle linebacker, it’ll be on Henderson and Chad Greenway to lead this linebacking corps. The team undoubtedly wants Henderson to prove he’s deserving of a more lucrative long-term contract; if he does, the middle of the field will be in good hands.
K Blair Walsh – Let’s be honest; you want Blair Walsh to fail. Yes, you. You hated that the Vikes “wasted” a 6th-round draft pick on a kicker, and you couldn’t believe it when they kicked fan and locker room favorite Ryan Longwell to the curb in favor of a stupid kicker who couldn’t even kick field goals very well during his senior year of college. You’re just waiting for him to miss his first game-losing three-ball as time expires, at which point you’ll take to the message boards to vilify General Manager Rick Spielman for his inability to build an NFL franchise and sing to the heavens that the Vikings would have won that game if Longwell was still their kicker. But what if Walsh doesn’t fail? What if he makes the kicks he’s supposed to? What if he nails a few from 50-plus yards? What if he actually can kick the ball into the end zone and pin the opponents back at their own 20-yard line? What if a defense that can use all the help it can get benefits greatly from an opponent having to drive 80 yards every time instead of 70? What if Spielman was right about Walsh? What if lopping Longwell’s millions off the books allows the Vikings to pursue a higher profile free agent next offseason? What if Spielman’s youth movement starts to pay immediate dividends? Simply because the situation is so intriguing – both on the field and in the front office – Walsh is a key player for the 2012 Vikings.
WR Jerome Simpson – The offseason reports on Simpson have been equal parts meaningless and glowing. Vikings coaches would have us believe they found the steal of the century in Simpson, another young player who seemingly fits perfectly into the offense as a deep threat the team so sorely lacked last season. And, frankly, he does. His career arc would suggest that the 2008 second-round draft pick is ready to turn into a serious threat for 70 catches, 1,000 yards, and six-to-eight touchdowns. But that’s what Bernard Berrian’s pre-Vikings career arc might have suggested too, and Berrian didn’t come shackled with a three-game suspension for having violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy. If Simpson can stay on the field and effectively stretch the defense, everyone from Christian Ponder to Percy Harvin to Kyle Rudolph to Adrian Peterson will have more room to operate. If not, the team will need a huge contribution from a batch of mediocre veterans (Devin Aromashodu) and mid-round draft picks (Greg Childs, Jarius Wright) to step up in a big way.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and the Managing Editor of LeagueSafe Post, a new fantasy football content site. He has written for Vikings.com and is a co-host of the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on 100.3 FM KFAN. Follow him on Twitter: @CP_ChristianP
After an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Vikings’ first-round draft picks on Thursday night, the rest of NFL Draft Weekend turned into a bit of a snoozer for most Vikings fans, and Saturday’s somewhat controversial selections seem to have drawn a fair amount of angst amongst the Purple Faithful. In particular, the selection of Georgia kicker Blair Walsh in Round 6 has seemingly caused the most outrage amongst Vikings fans and detractors alike.
In the end, I fall on the side of the naysayers on this one, but I’ll get to that in a bit. First, there actually are several arguments in favor of the move.
To start with, incumbent kicker Ryan Longwell is 37 years old (he’ll be 38 by the time the season starts) He missed six of his 28 field goal attempts in 2011, and missed five of his 13 attempts from beyond 40 yards. He’s also still owed $7 million over the next three seasons, with a cap hit of another $2.6 million on top of his base salary. From a pure business standpoint, it makes little sense to pay a 38-year-old kicker with obvious limitations coming off one of the worst seasons of his impressive career $7 million when a rookie would cost a tiny fraction of that cost. The $2.6 million cap hit (Longwell’s $3.5 million signing bonus, spread evenly across the life of his 4-year deal) would be a tough pill to swallow, but continuing to pay Longwell through his age 41 season might be throwing good money after bad. Even if Walsh misses a bunch of field goal attempts (he made just 74 percent of his kicks in college), would it really matter in 2012? Are the re-building Vikings just a couple of field goals away from the playoffs next year? Is paying a kicker who may be past his prime like one of the best in the league really a good allocation of Zygi Wilf’s money?
There’s also a case to be made that jettisoning the weak-legged Longwell in favor of the stronger Walsh is also a savvy move from a pure football standpoint as well.
Longwell’s major limitation is his inability to produce touchbacks on kickoffs. In 2011, he ranked 28th in the NFL with just 19 kickoffs, and he ranked 34th by forcing touchbacks on just 24.7 percent of his kicks (in part because of this, the Vikings ranked 31st in the NFL in average opponent starting position, according to Football Outsiders' drive stats. Vikings opponents started the average drive at the 31-yard line, while the 49ers defense/special teams led the NFL by forcing opponents to start each drive, on average, at their own 24-yard line).
That might not seem very important, but according to people who are a lot smarter than me, it is. According to an article on a website called Advanced NFL Stats, touchbacks are a lot more valuable than you might imagine. The article is from 2009 and is therefore somewhat outdated, but the findings remain valid today. You can see all the nerdy details here if you’d like, but the highlights of the research done by Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats are these:
Using a concept called Expected Points, Burke concludes that a touchback is worth the rough equivalent of half a sack (to drastically oversimplify things, this means that forcing a team to start out at their own 20-yard line twice in a game has roughly the same negative effect on the expected points that team’s offense will score as does sacking the quarterback once).
For two teams that don't play in the same division, the Vikings and Cardinals have put together a pretty impressive run of memorable games lately. Sunday's game will be the sixth meeting between the teams in the last nine years, and four of the last five games have carried special significance for the Purple.
So join us, won't you, as we take a walk down memory lane and revisit this curious rivalry between the desert dwellers and the tenants of the tundra.
Nov. 7, 2010 – Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)
Fresh off the debacle in New England and the release of Randy Moss, Brad Childress needed his team to make a statement in the Metrodome in order to save his job. But for the first 55 minutes of the game, that statement appeared to be, "Fire the bum already!" The Cardinals led by 14 and the Vikings were spinning their wheels until Brett Favre briefly became The Ol' Gunslinger again, leading the offense on two TD drives in the final 4 minutes and 32 seconds and sending the game into overtime on a 25-yard strike to Visanthe Shiancoe with 27 seconds left.
Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards, including a 22-yard pass to Bernard Berrian (he must have had no other options) that set up Ryan Longwell's 35-yard game-winning field goal that temporarily calmed the fans' thirst for Childress' blood.
"I think they came expecting to see an execution, and it ended up a pretty good football game at the end," Childress said afterwards. But it was just a temporary reprieve for the 3-5 Vikings and their beleaguered head coach. Two weeks later, after a listless home loss to the Packers, the fans got their wish and Chilly got his pink slip.
Dec. 6, 2009 – Cardinals 30, Vikings 17
The Vikings were riding high at 10-1 when they traveled to Phoenix to take on the Cardinals in a nationally televised Sunday night game. The offense had been held below 27 points only once, in their lone loss at Pittsburgh a month earlier. But Favre threw two picks (after having thrown only three in the previous 11 games) and Adrian Peterson was held to 19 yards on 13 carries as the Vikings fell behind 21-10 at the half and didn't do much the rest of the way.
In many ways, this game was the beginning of the end for the magical 2009 season. Favre was seen quarreling with Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell on the sidelines, the first actual evidence of the infamous schism that became an undercurrent of the final two months of the season. Throw in E.J. Henderson's gruesome broken leg, which forced rookie Jasper Brinkley into a key role the rest of the way, and this loss knocked the Vikings off-kilter on both sides of the ball.
Dec. 14, 2008 – Vikings 35, Cardinals 14
At 8-5, the visiting Vikings needed two wins in their last three games to wrap up a playoff berth, while the Cardinals already had sewn up the NFC West (their first division title in 33 years), and from the outset it was clear which team had shown up to play. Stepping in for the injured Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson threw a career-high four touchdown passes and the Vikings raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Berrian returned a punt 82 yards for Minnesota's first score, and Jackson later hit him on a 41-yard rainbow for another TD (too bad B-Twice wasn't on Twitter yet) and the rout was on.
The Vikings went on to beat the Giants in Week 17 to clinch the NFC North before losing to the Eagles and some guy named McNabb in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were destroyed in New England the next week, then rattled off a nice little four-game winning streak to reach their first-ever Super Bowl.
Nov. 26, 2006 – Vikings 31, Cardinals 26
Umm … OK, this one's not actually worth remembering. The Vikings got three TD passes from Brad Johnson (to Marcus Robinson, Billy McMullen and Jeff Dugan – I told you it wasn't worth remembering) while Cardinals rookie Matt Leinart threw for 405 yards, a mark he hasn't come close to matching since. Denny Green made his not-so-triumphant return to Minnesota that day, but his 2-9 Cards were no match for Chilly's 5-6 juggernaut. Arizona did tie an NFL record with two 99-yard touchdowns – a kickoff return by J.J. Arrington and a fumble return by Adrian Wilson – but the Vikings pulled out to a 31-13 lead in the fourth quarter and held on for what turned out to be a pretty meaningless win in a pretty meaningless season.
Perhaps the game was most notable for being the first meeting between the Cardinals and Vikings since …
Dec. 28, 2003 – Cardinals 18, Vikings 17
"NOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOO! The Cardinals have knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs!" Yes, all the Vikings had to do was defend one more play and the NFC North crown would have been theirs, in Mike Tice's second season as head coach, no less.
But of course, we all remember Arizona quarterback Josh McCown scrambling to his right and heaving the ball into the end zone, where journeyman receiver Nate Poole hauled it in and got two feet down for a 28-yard touchdown that sent the Vikings home for the season, put the Packers in the playoffs, and gave Paul Allen his first dose of national airtime with that painful final play call.
(NOTE: Careful readers have pointed out that Poole technically did not get two feet down -- the Vikings were victimized by the lame "force-out" rule that's since been excised from the books. True. Also a distinction without a difference. It didn't make that flight back from Phoenix any happier for the Vikings knowing that if the play had occurred in a different era they would have won. And yet, thanks to those who have pointed out the discrepancy.)
So what will we remember from this year's Vikings-Cardinals game? Will it be the start of the Christian Ponder Era? Will Donovan McNabb save his job and get head coach Leslie Frazier his first victory since the interim tag was removed from his title? Or maybe Larry Fitzgerald will blow up for four touchdowns, Kevin Kolb will start earning that ridiculous contract he weasled out of the Cardinals, and Berrian will insult a nun on Facebook. As recent history has shown, almost anything is possible when the Vikings and Cardinals get together.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual (on newsstands now!), and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
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