John Sullivan is not only rated by the Vikings coaching staff as the best center in the NFL, but the great leadership the 2008 sixth-round draft choice provides is one of the many reasons why his team will face the Packers in the playoffs on Saturday.
The fact that the Vikings went 3-13 last year had nothing to do with how well they did this year, according to Sullivan.
"Each season stands independent of the other season, so we put the time in, put the work in, and we find ourselves in the playoffs," the Notre Dame product said. "We're focused on just going out and playing our best game this week at Green Bay on Saturday night. We're definitely a team that has believed in ourselves from the beginning.
"We knew it was going to be a long road, like it is for every team. The NFL season is a grind, a marathon and not a sprint. But we put the work in, we went out and performed when it was showtime. We find ourselves in a good spot, because we're still alive and we have a chance to go out and accomplish our ultimate goals."
Speaking about the team's leaders, he said: "This is a team that is pretty young, but we have good, veteran leadership. We just focused on what was important, and that's winning each game individually. You don't want to get too caught up in the big picture."
Sullivan talked about the development of the offensive line and what a big contribution first-round pick Matt Kalil has made to the success of the running game. Kalil's presence at left tackle enabled Charlie Johnson to move to a better position for him at left guard, and he has thrived there.
"He's very talented; there's a reason [Kalil] was the fourth overall pick. It was a great job by our GM," Sullivan said.
"Charlie is a natural at left guard based on his body type. He's much better on the interior. He has done a great job embracing that role and doing what the coaching staff has asked him to do, and he's played at a high level all season long."
One big reason for the offensive line's success has been that no one lost any time to injury, with all five starters starting all 16 games and ready to start Saturday as well.
"You need time to develop that chemistry [on the offensive line] and you also need live reps. We started to gel in OTAs and training camp, but then you also just need to get out there during regular-season and live games and get that experience playing together," he said. "I think we progressed. We can still play better, and we'll be looking to play our best game this weekend."
Sullivan said the offensive line loves blocking for Adrian Peterson.
"You know we love blocking for the best running back in the league," he said. "Our coaching staff puts us in great positions to be successful. It has been an absolute pleasure. It has been a special season so far, but it's not over yet.
"As soon as we see [Peterson] break it into the open field, you're figuring he's going for a touchdown. He's a home run hitter. We love blocking for a running back like that."
Focused for Packers
Discussing the change of venue to Lambeau Field and the Vikings' inability to win outdoors all season, Sullivan said: "We're not focused on indoors or outdoors. We're focused on winning the game. That's all it comes down to; it's pretty simple.
"Lambeau is a great atmosphere. They have a really great fan base, and it can be a tough place to play. But we're experienced, we've played a lot of big games in a lot of loud stadiums, so it should be a nonfactor. We're just focused on us, not where we're playing.
"We believe in ourselves. We just did it last weekend."
When Sullivan was asked to talk about the team's overall performance this season, he mentioned that no one is ready to look back quite yet.
"That's for you guys to discuss," said one of the real class acts that has ever put on a Vikings uniform. "We're still focused on winning. I don't want to do anything that's retrospective right now, because nothing is over."
Protection for Winfield
Sunday, Antoine Winfield tried to play despite a broken hand, but it swelled up on him and he had to leave the game.
The cornerback is more optimistic about playing the entire game Saturday. "Just going to have more protection over it," he said. "Last week I just had a glove with a little padding. This week I have a smaller cast to protect my hand."
And speaking of Winfield, he had an incentive-based contract and he reached it this year. Winfield missed most of last season and lost a lot of his potential contract, but he made that up this year by playing in all 16 games, earning back all of the incentives of his $6 million contract.
• The Vikings-Packers game Sunday not only was the seventh-most-watched NFL game this season, with 26.4 million viewers and a 15.3 rating, but it also set a Vikings season mark for fewest no-shows, with only 238 people who bought tickets not showing up. I wonder how many Timberwolves fans show up Saturday night for the game with Portland since they share a 7 p.m. start time with the Vikings.
• Vikings receivers coach George Stewart believes that Jarius Wright, the rookie who made his season debut Nov. 11, has a very bright future. "Obviously, he has done a nice job the last five weeks, since he's been active, and we're expecting big things out of Jarius the rest of the season," Stewart said of Wright, who has 22 catches for 310 yards over the final seven games. "He's very smart," Stewart said. "Bobby Petrino and his system at Arkansas helped him to be a pro football player."
• With Lovie Smith fired as Chicago coach, ex-Vikings coach Mike Tice is out of work. He had been Bears offensive coordinator. Also out of work is Tice's replacement here, Brad Childress, the Browns offensive coordinator who was fired along with the rest of the Cleveland staff. But if former Eagles coach Andy Reid is named the new Chiefs coach, look for Childress to join him.
• Two former Vikings will play for Seattle against Washington on Sunday. Heath Farwell, a Vikings special teams cog from 2005 to '10, has continued to fill that role with the Seahawks, with 15 special-teams tackles after an NFL-high 21 in 2011. And Sidney Rice has 50 receptions for 748 yards and seven touchdowns, the second-best total of his career, behind his stellar 2009 season here.
• In Sunday's AFC matchup between Baltimore and Indianapolis, Matt Birk will be manning his usual center position for the Ravens. Birk has been nothing but consistent with Baltimore, starting 16 games in each of his four seasons there. Bryant McKinnie hasn't started this season as Michael Oher has taken over at left tackle, but has played in every game.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org