For Vikings, it's all NFC North all the time for next several weeks

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2012 - 7:07 AM

Bears, Packers and Lions are a combined 10-1 over their past 11 games.

Remember the screen pass Christian Ponder threw last week that traveled about 10 yards sideways yet was still 2 feet wide of Percy Harvin? And the bullet Ponder threw toward Devin Aromashodu, the one that got deflected and whirled past the Vikings receiver as if it were a flaming ax?

And how about the overall unease Ponder has shown in the pocket the past three weeks?

Here's the good news, at least as it's being packaged by the Vikings quarterback:

"It's all fixable," Ponder said from a podium at Seattle's CenturyLink Field after last Sunday's 30-20 loss. "We're going to see it on film. It's all fixable."

Same goes, apparently, for the suddenly weak run defense. As the Vikings' yards-allowed total spins upward faster than Jimmie Johnson's odometer, linebacker Chad Greenway remains convinced that, too, can quickly be repaired.

"Sort of the classic tale, you're just a little bit off," Greenway said. "And [teams] are seeming to find the holes with what we're leaving open."

In an effort to wall off negativity, the Vikings turned Winter Park into an echo chamber this week, sticking to their talking points with a determination befitting of a desperate contender in early November.

The words "fixable" and "correctable" are cemented in the rhetoric.

"The thing is we know what we need to clean up," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "So much of this is guys handling their assignments. So whatever it's going to take to get guys in the right spots is what we need to be doing. And that starts with looking at everything internally."

Maybe that's the best approach, especially with what's looming outside.

Over their next four games, the Vikings will charge into four consecutive division matchups that will leave them little margin for error. For a team as shaken as the Vikings currently seem, this NFC North march could become a minefield.

Sunday, the Vikings will have to deal with an improving Lions squad at Mall of America Field. Then, after a Week 11 bye, they will get back-to-back road trips to Soldier Field and Lambeau Field plus a Week 14 visit from a Bears squad that seems capable of winning the Super Bowl.

As if the Vikings' in-house list of concerns wasn't long enough, over the next month they will now also have to worry about Calvin Johnson's freakish athleticism and Aaron Rodgers' rocket arm and Charles Tillman's right fist.

"This [stretch] caught my eye from the very beginning," linebacker Erin Henderson said. "When we first looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year, this is one of those stretches you know is really going to make or break your season."

Strength in numbers

From top to bottom, the NFC North might be as strong right now as it has ever been since the NFL switched to four-team divisions in 2002. It's feasible the division could send three teams to the playoffs for the first time.

The Bears, Packers, Vikings and Lions have already combined for 22 victories, most for any division in the NFL (the NFC West is second at 18).

In many ways, the next four games might leave the Vikings feeling as if they were crossing a tightrope. In a potato sack. With Johnson charging toward them and Rodgers gunning fastballs and Tillman punching at whatever resolve they have left.

Last Sunday, as the Vikings went through warmups in Seattle, the rest of their NFC North mates were holding a talent show, all notching victories by a combined score of 112-52.

Johnson? He caught seven passes for 129 yards as Detroit won easily in Jacksonville.

Rodgers? Against Arizona, his touchdown pass total kept rising -- 22, 23, 24, 25. He's now thrown for 1,085 yards and 15 scores in the past four weeks, fueling Green Bay's four-game winning streak.

And Tillman? That pesky right fist of his jolted four fumbles loose from Tennessee Titans hands, continuing a turnover onslaught for the Bears. Their defense now has an NFL-best 28 takeaways (18 more than the Vikings) and a mind-boggling seven touchdowns.

No wonder players within the division have been voicing their respects. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford said this week that this is "definitely" the best the NFC North has been during his career.

"Top to bottom, for sure," he said. "Every team is playing really well, playing good defense and making it tough. More than anything, the competition of it is where nobody is lagging behind."

Which is why, before the season began, so many experts stamped such a high degree of difficulty on the Vikings' 2012 goal of vaulting back into relevance.

Objectively, there was no way to examine the North and not come away feeling as if the Vikings had the most glaring shortcomings, a belief seemingly confirmed over the past four weeks.

The Vikings are 1-3 in that span. The Bears, Packers and Lions: 10-1.

'What we're made of'

Detroit has a top-10 pass defense and a 24-year-old quarterback who can endure his ups and downs with assurance that his long-term security is safe.

Green Bay has Rodgers and an emerging superstar in receiver Randall Cobb.

And Chicago is 24-9 with Jay Cutler as its starting QB the past three seasons. And the Bears continue to pulverize the notion that their defense is on the verge of getting too old.

With that context, it's easy to surmise the Vikings' psyche might be easier to bruise than an overhandled peach in the next four weeks. Yes, they've already scored one critical NFC North win, that 20-13 Week 4 triumph in Detroit. But that also ended an 11-game division losing streak at a time where their confidence was high and their injury concerns low.

Suddenly, both have shifted.

Percy Harvin, for example, left Ford Field in September in the middle of the MVP conversation, having put the Vikings ahead to stay that day just 12 seconds into the game with his 105-yard kickoff return. Sunday, Harvin will likely be on the sidelines in a sweatshirt with a sprained left ankle.

Ponder, too, is in a different place than he was when the softer part of the schedule allowed him to calmly manage games and build confidence.

And the defense? It controlled Johnson nicely in Detroit and locked down against the run in the middle of a three-game winning streak that saw the Vikings hold lead running backs to a total of 113 yards on 40 carries.

Sunday, they will take the Mall of America Field turf with tire tracks still fresh from Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling (104 rushing yards in Week 7) and Tampa Bay's Doug Martin (214 total yards in Week 8).

Suddenly the stakes are elevated with an unforgiving division about to provide a measuring stick.

"There's a reason they say these division games count as two," Williams said.

Which is why the Vikings' recent slide is so ill-timed. This is not the portion of the schedule to be dealing with so many breakdowns.

Heck, the way the NFC North has powered up, this wasn't the ideal season to begin a steep rebuilding climb.

Yet, said safety Jamarca Sanford, the Vikings' 2012 survival must begin with fearlessness.

"This is the most important month," he said. "You get into November and December, you better be ready to play your best football. And then when you get into the division like it is now, you best understand what's at stake. We're going to learn a lot about what we're made of."

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