The Vikings see reasons -- that young quarterback among them -- to look past their 2-6 record and ahead to better times.
As Leslie Frazier pulled up a chair in his Winter Park office Monday, he was asked about the image frozen on the projection screen to his right.
"That's it right there," Frazier said, flashing a mascot-sized smile. "That will always brighten the mood."
The Vikings coach was still evaluating the previous day's 24-21 victory at Carolina but chose to leave the film paused at the ultimate feel-good moment: Quarterback Christian Ponder putting a knee down on the team's second win.
So much had gone right in Charlotte. From Adrian Peterson's 162 total yards and two highlight-reel touchdowns to injured Percy Harvin's ferocity on the game-winning field goal drive. From the composure of a rookie -- see: Ponder's 102.7 quarterback rating -- to the contagious hustle of a veteran leader -- Jared Allen played a role in the two Vikings takeaways that led to 14 points.
Frazier had no choice but to praise the performance.
"All of a sudden, the team takes a deep breath and says, 'OK we can do this,'" Frazier said. "All the good teams I've ever been around, even the dominant teams, there are games you had to dig deep and win in the fourth quarter. To see that happen, you get a glimpse of what our future could be."
With 15 days between games, who's to blame the Vikings for cramming their bye week suitcases with so much hope?
Yet along with such delight comes this midseason reality: The Vikings remain, indisputably, the worst team in the NFC North, closest in the standings to a Chicago squad that beat them by 29 points just three weeks ago.
At this point, only two NFL teams have more losses -- the Dolphins and Colts.
And sure, the Vikings depth chart includes a few show-stopping stars. But it also has more holes than a pasta strainer.
That leads to a three-pronged riddle: Is the Vikings' newfound optimism justifiable?
If so, just how close are they really to turning a corner and becoming a playoff team again?
Or did that narrow victory over the Panthers, coupled with a gritty effort the week before against Green Bay, simply leave the Vikings sailing into the season's second half with a longboat full of fool's gold?
Two days before the conquest in Carolina, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe stopped beside the practice field and agreed to gauge the team's pulse.
Somehow, the Week 7 home loss to rival Green Bay had rejuvenated the locker room. After all, the Vikings had the ball in the final five minutes with a chance to take the lead on the defending Super Bowl champs. And Ponder's positive energy had everyone believing it was going to happen.
In the end, at least the 33-27 stumble wasn't as bad as the oddsmakers projected.
Plus, the Packers, unbeaten since before last Christmas, are the obvious favorites to shower in Super Bowl confetti three months from now. So if the Vikings can hang with them, how far away can a turnaround be?
"You almost beat the champs, that shows you your potential," Shiancoe said. "You can definitely sense something building. I see a new and strong chemistry here. There's a vibe that we're all in sync. If we can just clean up a few tiny mistakes that are very easily correctable, we're right there."
Right there. Nipping on the heels of the Super Bowl champs, with another measuring stick battle against the Packers next week.
Right there. That's also what the Vikings claimed after early losses to San Diego and Tampa Bay and then again after falling to Detroit and Kansas City.
The cage match between hope and deficiency is a long way from over.
At present, the Vikings secondary seems shakier than a naked ice fisherman. The offensive line registers as merely average. And outside of the oft-injured Harvin, Ponder's receiving corps is without a true game-changer.
"At times, we're lights out. Unstoppable," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "But to be honest with you, man, it's foolish to start looking too far forward to what we wish was the picture.
"We've lost six games. You can't run from that. All the 'What ifs?' in the world can't erase our record. You can try to build hope and all. But wins are the ultimate proof -- the only proof, really."
A two-win team
The Vikings' 2011 victories are less than convincing, coming against Carolina and Arizona, teams that have combined to lose 37 of their 47 games the past two seasons.
During moments of introspection, Frazier can't help but see all the talent and promise. He also sees a 2-6 record that contradicts his cheer.
"It is a little frustrating," he said. "Because going into the season I felt we could compete with everybody that was on our schedule. And we have for the most part. We've just fallen a little bit short.
"In the end, it results in 2-6. And you go, 'How did we end up 2-6 playing so hard for so long?'
"That's the reality we have to deal with. And we have to figure out a way to deliver some wins that can justify what we think we have here."
Unquestionably, the Vikings have several sturdy building blocks. They have a running back in Peterson who has more rushing yards this season (798) than anyone in the NFL.
They have a defensive end in Allen who is on pace to record more quarterback sacks this season than anyone ever has.
And they have a rookie quarterback in Ponder who, after just two starts, seems to be providing direction. If that continues, Frazier will be able to check the "All Set" box beside yet another critical position.
"If we're right about Christian," Frazier said, "what a luxury that will be."
Before this season, Frazier was certain the Vikings could hang around games deep into the fourth quarter, needing only one or two big plays to triumph. Now he's certain Ponder has the confidence and focus to help make those plays.
Hey, it happened last week in Carolina.
"That line is so thin," Frazier said. "You find a way to win those games in the fourth quarter, now a 7-9 team all of a sudden becomes a 9-7 team. I'm seeing glimpses that we're closing the gap in that area."
Reason for hope
The NFL is designed for quick turnarounds.
Those highly hyped Detroit Lions, 6-2 and making a playoff charge with a nucleus of young stars? Just three seasons ago, they went winless. They were 8-24 the two years after that.
Those upstart Buffalo Bills, suddenly tied with New England atop the AFC East? Last year at this time, they were 0-8. Then the new starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, settled in, won his teammates' support and catalyzed a revival.
This pothole-filled back road the Vikings have been bumping down the past two seasons? Suddenly, they see signs that an express ramp to relevance could be ahead.
Address those big needs in the secondary, offensive line and receiver wisely through both free agency and the draft ...
"With the number of Pro Bowl-caliber players we have and to see the quarterback position beginning to be solidified, it really gives you hope for the future," Frazier said. "Now, yes, we have to fix some areas. I'm not naïve enough to tell you this roster is perfect the way it is. There's no way when you're 2-6. But some of the cornerstones are there."
Frazier's assertion comes with that image motionless above him, one victory secured and commemorated on a projection screen.
Soon, though, Frazier will need more convincing office décor than a still frame from a narrow victory in Carolina to sway outsiders into believing that "right there" can soon become "right now."
|Baltimore - WP: T. Wilson||10||FINAL|
|NY Yankees - LP: S. Baker||2|
|Sporting Kansas City||1||FINAL|
|New York City||0|
|Red Bull New York||2||FINAL|
|Aug 8 - vs. Oakland||7 pm||X||10-6|
|Aug 16 - vs. Arizona||7:30 pm||X||30-28|
|Aug 23 - at Kansas City||7 pm||X||30-12|
|Aug 28 - at Tennessee||7 pm||X||19-3|
|2014 regular season|
|Sep 7 - at St. Louis||Noon||X||34-6|
|Sep 14 - vs. New England||Noon||X||30-7|
|Sep 21 - at New Orleans||Noon||X||20-9|
|Sep 28 - vs. Atlanta||3:25 pm||X||41-28|
|Oct 2 - at Green Bay||7:25 pm||X||42-10|
|Oct 12 - vs. Detroit||Noon||X||17-3|
|Oct 19 - at. Buffalo||Noon||X||17-16|
|Oct 26 - at Tampa Bay||Noon||X||19-13 ot|
|Nov 2 - vs. Washington||Noon||X||29-26|
|Nov 9 - Bye|
|Nov 16 - at Chicago||Noon||X||21-13|
|Nov. 23 - vs. Green Bay||Noon||X||24-21|
|Nov. 30 - vs. Carolina||Noon||X||31-13|
|Dec 7 - vs. NY Jets||Noon||X||30-24 ot|
|Dec 14 - at Detroit||3:25 pm||X||16-14|
|Dec 21 - at Miami||Noon||X||37-35|
|Dec 28 - vs. Chicago||Noon||X||13-9|