It was a Monday afternoon like too many others in the recent past. The Vikings had absorbed a disheartening defeat a day earlier, this one 23-20 in Indianapolis when the defense couldn't prevent a game-winning field goal drive in the final minute.

So as linebacker Chad Greenway entered the Winter Park locker room to face the inevitable day-after inquisition, he came with a firm approach.

Greenway wasn't about to slip back into 2011 mode when the Vikings explained away a flurry of close losses with too much disbelief rather than the needed acceptance of their problems.

Week after week, the rhetoric produced an echo chamber.

"There's too much talent in this locker room for us to be 0-4."

"Once we get the penalties and mental mistakes cleaned up, we won't have to talk about being 1-6."

"If guys would just execute their assignments, we wouldn't be 2-12."

This Monday? Greenway fielded questions about the struggling 2-minute defense and whether he had seen any bright spots in Indy.

"We've got to shore things up in a hurry," he said. "No excuses. No explanations. You go to work and you get it right. We got into this last year: 'Well, we did this good and that good. We didn't finish, but we had a really good first half.' Well, you're losing, so it doesn't really matter. At the end of the year, you're 3-13 and all you have is a bunch of excuses."

Suddenly, two weeks into 2012, the Vikings have reached a fork in the road.

Path A: Shrug off their early struggles off as predictable growing pains for an incredibly young team unanimously pegged as the worst in the NFC North.

Path B: Refuse to accept mediocrity and let the veterans' expectations matter most, no matter how steep the climb back toward relevance seems.

The trickiest part may be getting all 53 players to go down the same road. Because, truthfully, both paths make sense.

Still, it's clear which way the established leaders are headed. Greenway wants accountability across the board. Brian Robison and Michael Jenkins have also delivered pep talks this week. And Antoine Winfield might have given the most rousing sermon of all.

"No one has more respect than Antoine," receiver Percy Harvin said. "And it was obvious he spoke from the heart. For me, the message was that this is about right now. It's not tomorrow, it's not later. It's right now."

Added Winfield: "The reality for some of us old guys is we're not going to be around four or five years down the line. And I remember what it was like when I first came into the league. I didn't take everything as serious as I should have. I was happy to be here. I wasn't studying hard enough. Sometimes you need a fire lit. That's why I want to get into these young guys now. Get into your playbooks, study more film. And when you're on the field, we expect you to play to your potential."

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has been appreciative of such leadership. But he doesn't want this week's sudden urgency misconstrued either.

"The thing I've tried to stress," Frazier said, "is there is no reason for us to panic."

Which becomes the Vikings' next major challenge-- finding a way to heighten their focus without slipping into a state of total anxiety.

It won't be easy. The 49ers visit Sunday as seven-point favorites. The Vikings then head to Detroit, certain to be underdogs again in Week 4.

In other words, if all goes according to form, October will arrive and the Vikings will be 1-3 and needing a 10,000-pound chest to bar the doors against all the doubt and negativity that will be trying to barge in from outside.

"Panic comes when you feel like it's out of your control," Harvin said. "Urgency comes when you can make something happen right now. It's a very thin line. But I think these speeches this week came at the right time."

Dan Wiederer •