EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There are 16 teams in the NFC. At 5-6, the Vikings' record is better than only five of them.
That's one way to look at the hometown heroes.
Then, of course, there is owner Zygi Wilf's line of thinking:
"Back in the hunt, big time!" Wilf exclaimed as he nearly sprinted off the field Sunday at Giants Stadium.
Yes, the Vikings were talking playoffs for the first time in three years after a charmed 41-17 victory over the New York Giants. Wilf, the lifelong Giants fan, was euphoric after watching his new team return three interceptions for touchdowns. Even normally conservative coach Brad Childress said the Vikings have shifted from a "footnote" to "significant" in the standings after winning three of four games. Players dished out (mostly) good-natured ribbing toward media members who gave them little chance to beat one of the NFC's top teams.
"There's a big difference between being an underdog and no one picking you to win," said safety Dwight Smith, who intercepted New York quarterback Eli Manning twice, returning he second 93 yards for a touchdown in fourth quarter. "And I don't believe anyone except for the people in this locker room thought we would win this game."
(Full disclosure: All six of the Star Tribune's noted football experts picked the Giants.)
To be fair, it was difficult to predict Manning panicking so thoroughly after the Vikings threw a few new wrinkles at him. He threw four interceptions -- safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Chad Greenway joined Smith in return parade -- and completed only 21 of 49 passes against what had been the worst pass defense in the NFL.
"It was like it was raining picks today," nose tackle Pat Williams said.
For the record, rain might be easier to forecast.
After all, there weren't many fortune tellers suggesting that Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson would outshine Manning by finishing with a career-high 139.2 rating. Giants cornerback Sam Madison, for one, said he was "shocked" by the way Jackson played and added the Giants assumed "we could rattle this quarterback."
Jackson threw a 60-yard touchdown to Sidney Rice on the game's second play and finished with 10 completions in 12 attempts, while also running five times for a career-high 38 yards. In so doing, he provided the minimalist performance the Vikings have been looking for all season -- throwing efficiently, using his mobility to run for a pair of first downs and avoiding a game-changing mistake.
"That's the way you want your quarterback to play in this offense," Childress said.
The night before, Childress spoke to players about maintaining their relevance as the season enters its final month. The Vikings' 2-5 start has made the playoffs a difficult prospect, but Childress made clear that "2007 is not written yet."
Yes, rookie tailback Adrian Peterson is expected back for next week's game against Detroit, the first of four games for the Vikings against NFC opponents that could impact playoff tiebreakers. In fact, the Vikings are among a group of eight conference teams -- all within two games of each other -- fighting for two wild card berths.
"The No. 1 reason people leave jobs is that they're not significant," Childress said. "[Saturday night], we asked them all to be a significant part of this win. ... It's significant because of where you're at right now. You have a chance to be in the mix."
Of course, stellar individual play doesn't hurt, either. Two of this season's victories have come on 200-plus yard days from Peterson; Sunday, the Vikings became the first NFL team in 23 years to score three touchdowns off interceptions in one game.
They never looked back after Sharper's 20-yard return gave them a 14-7 advantage with 3 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Two possessions later, Smith set up the Vikings' third touchdown by returning an interception to the New York 8-yard line. Tailback Chester Taylor made it 21-7 with a touchdown run on the next play.
"In a lot of ways," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said, "it was almost comical. You couldn't believe it."
Not everyone will believe in the Vikings, either. (Currently, the Star Tribune's football experts are regrouping.) But after what appeared to be another lost season, the Vikings at least are still on the map.
"This is a good feeling," linebacker Ben Leber said. "We kind of have to dig ourselves out of a hole. But it's nice to know we have some light and do have a chance to get into the playoffs. That's in the back of our mind right now."
Kevin Seifert firstname.lastname@example.org