The big question I want to ask the Vikings fans who have been critical of Blair Walsh's missed kick that in all likelihood would have sent the team to a victory over Seattle in Sunday's NFC wild-card game is: Did any of you in your right mind before the season believe the Purple would finish 11-5 and beat the Packers for the division title?

When the 2015 NFL season opened, Las Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Vikings with 8-1 odds to win the NFC North, behind both the Packers (2-7) and the Lions (9-2).

There were a lot of doubts about the 2015 Vikings, and for good reason. No one knew what to expect out of Adrian Peterson as the running back returned after missing all but one game in 2014. The offensive line was decimated before the season even started, losing veteran starters Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan. And while the defense had a lot of potential, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith were coming off injuries.

And a team that went 7-9 in 2014 under first-year coach Mike Zimmer was counting on young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who showed promise as a rookie but had a long way to go before showing he could be a top NFL signal-caller.

A lot of people didn't like the Vikings' chances of improving on their 2014 record after they were embarrassed on "Monday Night Football" at San Francisco in Week 1, losing 20-3 as the offense managed only 248 yards while the defense gave up 395, including 230 rushing yards. That 49ers team ended up 5-11 and fired its coach.

The one big addition the Vikings made on offense was receiver Mike Wallace, and he turned out to be pretty close to a complete flop.

Staying healthy

So what went right? Once the season started, the Vikings were mostly healthy, with no key players going on injured reserve after Loadholt and Sullivan. Linebacker Audie Cole went on IR in November, safety Antone Exum Jr. in December and tight end Rhett Ellison in January, but most of the injuries Vikings players suffered weren't season-altering. Barr, Smith and Linval Joseph all missed time but were back at the end of the season.

And for the second year in a row, the Vikings had the same offensive line start all 16 games. Though that offensive line sometimes struggled to protect Bridgewater, Joe Berger, filling at center for Sullivan, was called by Pro Football Focus as the NFL's best run blocker this season.

And the health carried over to Bridgewater, too. He only missed part of one game due to injury, when he was knocked out of the Rams game.

Future bright

Now there is every reason to believe this team can compete with the best in the NFL for several reasons.

On offense, Peterson erased any doubts by earning his third NFL rushing title. After some rough stretches early on Bridgewater showed considerable improvement toward the end of the season and cut down on his interceptions from his rookie campaign.

Some of the best surprises came from the receivers. Rookie Stefon Diggs came out of nowhere to become the No. 1 receiver and another great pick by General Manager Rick Spielman.

Then there were players such as Zach Line and Adam Thielen, who didn't get a ton of opportunities but made great use of them.

On the offensive line, in addition to Berger's play, T.J. Clemmings gained valuable experience filling in for Loadholt at right tackle, and Mike Harris also showed he can be a solid starter after he earned the job at right guard.

Defensive stars

One reason the team produced better than expected was a great coaching job by Zimmer, especially on defense.

Linebacker Eric Kendricks came in as a rookie and led the team in tackles. Everson Griffen continued to prove he's one of the best defensive ends in the league, notching 10½ sacks in 15 games.

Barr showed his rookie season wasn't a fluke as he was perhaps the best all-around defensive player on the team at age 23. Smith also had a healthy season and again was one of the NFL's best safeties.

Rookie Danielle Hunter was one of the bigger surprises, recording six sacks. Veteran cornerback Terence Newman showed why Zimmer found him a worthy addition to the team.

Yes, it's disappointing the Vikings lost a playoff game they could have won. But there's no way to look at how much the team improved from Week 1 to Week 17 as anything other than a success. Zimmer brought out the best in his players and will push this team to advance even further in 2016.

Bierman produced

It was interesting that on Monday's telecast of Alabama's 45-40 national championship victory over Clemson, ESPN kept mentioning the names of coaches who had multiple national titles.

One name ESPN neglected to highlight is Bernie Bierman, the former Gophers coach. From 1932 to '41, Bierman won five national titles. Alabama's Nick Saban joined the five-championship club Monday. Bierman's first two championships came in 1934 and 1935, before the Associated Press poll began in 1936.

The only coach with more national championships than Bierman is Bear Bryant, who had six at Alabama. An interesting anecdote is that at one time after Bierman was let go in 1950, Bryant, who was coaching at Kentucky at the time, interviewed for the Gophers job, which Wes Fesler eventually got. I had met Bryant through some other coaches and went to the airport to interview him. But Bryant never had any interest in this job, he just came here to add to his assets at Kentucky.


• When asked of the status of Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell, Wolves owner Glen Taylor said Mitchell would retain his interim status until the end of the season. My guess is that Mitchell will continue to coach the Wolves in 2016-17.

• Bloomington Jefferson product Cole Aldrich got a chance to start at center for the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday when DeAndre Jordan was forced to sit due to an illness. Aldrich made the most of it, scoring 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with seven rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes in a 104-90 victory over Miami. In his sixth NBA season, the 6-11 Aldrich is averaging 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.

• Former Benilde-St. Margaret's standout Sanjay Lumpkin is averaging 5.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 assist per game for Northwestern. The junior guard had nine points and five rebounds in a 70-65 victory over Wisconsin on Tuesday.

• The Vikings-Seahawks game was the most-watched early Sunday wild-card game in NFL history, dating to 1988 when numbers started being recorded, according to the Nielsen Company. The game averaged 35.3 million viewers.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m.