The questions have been flowing for months. You don't get picked to finish at the bottom of a weak division for nothing, after all. Knowledgeable observers don't make you No. 31 in their power rankings because they think they're wrong. You don't get Fox's fifth-string announcing crew -- and you don't need corporate help to sell out your stadium -- because everyone believes you're going to the Super Bowl.
Yes, plenty of people found reasons to doubt the Vikings as the 2007 season opened. So as he gathered players for one final meeting Saturday night, coach Brad Childress joined the skeptics. On a screen, Childress displayed 20 questions about the team -- "There were probably more if I would have kept on writing," he said afterward -- and challenged players to answer them in Sunday's season opener against Atlanta.
The Vikings solved enough problems to earn a sturdy 24-3 victory over the hapless Falcons, beginning and ending the scoring with two defensive touchdowns and celebrating a breakout game for budding star Adrian Peterson.
But an injury to tailback Chester Taylor, along with a mostly dormant offense, left Childress with a few unanswered questions.
"Some you're able to tick off and cross out," Childress said, "and some continue to need work. But it's always good to start to find out those answers."
Players absorbed a rocky introduction to Childress last season, but he spent much of the offseason building relationships with key pillars of the locker room. They witnessed his sense of humor in practice and meetings, but Saturday evening "was a pretty serious deal," cornerback Antoine Winfield said.
In some cases, players were called out individually. One of the questions was whether defensive end Kenechi Udeze would get a sack this season after registering zero in 2006. (He did, on the last play of Sunday's game, to earn a game ball.)
Another: Who, if anyone, would step up as an offensive playmaker? Peterson answered that one, replacing Taylor (bruised hip) in the first quarter and rushing for 103 yards on 19 carries. Peterson also took a swing pass from Tarvaris Jackson 60 yards for a touchdown, giving the Vikings a 17-3 lead with 7 minutes, 19 seconds remaining.
"It was just me talking to our team," Childress said. "When you deal in honesty, everybody knows they're asking the same questions."
Indeed, Childress not only expressed his concerns but also exposed the fears of many in the meeting room. The truth hurts, it has been said before. How did it feel Saturday night?
"Everyone has an opinion," Winfield said. "That's how I look at it. The only thing that matters are that the guys have a lot of confidence in this locker room and that we are going to play for each other every time we get on that field."
The Vikings certainly fulfilled that expectation Sunday afternoon, as the defense once again rescued the offense, outscoring it just as it did in two of their four preseason games. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams started it midway through the first quarter, tipping a Joey Harrington pass to himself and returning it 54 yards for a touchdown.
Winfield, meanwhile, clinched the game with 2:37 left by intercepting Harrington at the Vikings 14 and dashing into the end zone. In between, the offense managed only a 49-yard field goal from Ryan Longwell before Peterson's long score.
In fact, the Vikings had gained only 203 yards entering the fourth quarter; they finished with 302 yards and 15 first downs.
"We're still getting a feel for this offense," said receiver Bobby Wade, whose 28-yard reception helped set up Longwell's field goal. "Obviously when your defense plays that well, it's pretty easy. ... But we can't let our defense beat us in touchdowns. So we'll be back next week and take it as a personal challenge to get it in the end zone."
Postgame discussion, in fact, focused so tightly on defensive scoring and rookie running backs that perhaps the No. 1 question on Childress' list -- Jackson -- seemed almost a nonfactor. Jackson completed 13 of 23 passes for 163 yards, throwing one interception and missing receivers Troy Williamson and Sidney Rice when they broke open on deep routes.
And yet, thanks to Peterson and the defense, the Vikings never had to worry about it.
"It speaks well for us," Winfield said, "but it's a long year. This is just the first game. It's not time to start patting ourselves on the back."