Four weeks ago, the Vikings hit a low point in their season. The December 2 loss in Green Bay left the Vikings at 6-6, and with four losses over their previous five games, it appeared as though an improbable run from 3-13 to the playoffs was over - just another crushed dream for the Minnesota sports scene.
But a funny thing happened while fans were punching Christian Ponder's ticket out of town, calling for the entire coaching staff to be fired, and wondering what wide receiver the Vikings might target with their top-15 pick... the Purple won their final four games and earned the NFC's sixth seed. Amazing.
How refreshingly wonderful does this feel? Over the last four weeks, the Vikings stepped up, defied odds, exceeded expectations, and ripped off wins over the Bears, Rams, Texans, and Packers. Even the most grumbly, curmudgeonly, passive-aggressive Vikings fan should be all smiles right now.
Sunday's win over the Packers was one of the sweetest victories in my recent memory, especially since I'm one of the many Minnesota sports fans often consuming by the pessimistic belief that our teams are somehow doomed to fail and slap us in the face. Every Aaron Rodgers counter-punch - and there were many in the second half; #12 was brilliant - threatened to end the Vikings' season, but MVP* Adrian Peterson, the much-maligned Ponder, and the entire team took the punishment, got off the canvas, and ultimately delivered the victory.
(*There should be zero doubt across the country that AD is the 2012 MVP. I have nothing against Peyton Manning, but he joined a team that won a playoff game last season thanks to an excellent defense and a strong running game. I can name 5-10 quarterbacks who might have led the 2012 Broncos to the playoffs. Replace Peterson with any other running back in the NFL and the Vikings aren't in the postseason.)
In the biggest game of his young career, Ponder may have secured his space atop the 2013 depth chart. We've all been pining for him to perform exactly like he did on Sunday - work off of Peterson's lead, keep the chains moving, protect the ball, and occasionally step up and make a big play or three. I'm still in shock that the Vikings completed four passes of 20-plus yards in one game, including the 65-yard strike to Jarius Wright**. Through 15 games, the Vikings owned a mere 24 completions of 20-plus yards, by far the worst in the NFL.
(**As an aside, this impressive four-game win streak and push to the playoffs has come without Percy Harvin, the team's MVP during the first half of this season. It will be interesting to see how this plays into what should be an interesting offseason when Percy could receive a contract extension, be traded, or begrudgingly play out his contract.)
Ponder has deserved every bit of criticism he has received for his poor on-field play this season, and he also deserves praise for improving in recent weeks and for the win over the Packers. No matter what happens in the playoffs, Ponder's recent play should be a confidence boost as he heads into a critical offseason and a make-or-break 2013 campaign.
The Vikings will be heavy underdogs when they head into Lambeau this coming weekend, and frankly, a victory would simply be extra frosting on what currently feels like a pretty sweet and fulfilling season. Then again, the Purple are peaking at the right time with four straight wins and coulda, shoulda won in Green Bay on December 2. Anything can happen in the postseason; just ask the 2005 Steelers or the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings.
But let's start worrying about the playoff game later this week. Take a moment to bask in the fleeting glow of a Minnesota sports team rising to the occasion and delivering a winning performance (and four weeks of winning performances) beyond our expectations.