Off the basis of the Vikings’ effort in their 23-20 loss at Arizona on Thursday night, along with the improvement a number of their young players have shown this season, fans would not be wrong in calling this the best team the Vikings have had since the 2009 squad that went to the NFC Championship Game and nearly made it to the Super Bowl.

The way the Vikings defense competed without Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, Linval Joseph and Andrew Sendejo was amazing. The unit continues to improve under coach Mike Zimmer, with young stars such as Barr, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Eric Kendricks having breakout seasons.

The Vikings are 16th in the NFL in total defense, giving up 346.2 yards per game, but they have given up only 19.6 points per game, the fifth- lowest total in the league, and Zimmer might be the best defensive coach in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the real weakness of this year’s team has been the offensive line, thanks in part to the season-ending injuries to center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt. However, that will become a strength for the team in the future. Sullivan and Loadholt’s presence might have helped the Vikings to a couple of extra victories this season.

Going forward, the Vikings figure to have a lot of depth on the offensive line next season, with Joe Berger and T.J. Clemmings getting a lot of playing time this year.

The Vikings are going to have to continue to improve on offense. Their offense ranks 30th overall in yards per game at 321.5 and 28th at 19.8 points per game. But improved depth on the offensive line would greatly improve the time that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has to pass and also keep Adrian Peterson’s rushing numbers up.

Will make playoffs

The Bears are 5-8 and the Giants are 5-7, going into New York’s game at Miami on Monday.

It would be a big upset if the Vikings lost at home to either of those teams and had any chance to miss the playoffs. But the real fact is this: If the Vikings get Smith and Barr healthy and on the field again, they will have a chance at winning the NFC North in Week 17 at Green Bay.

The Packers have controlled the division for six years but have looked increasingly vulnerable as the season has gone along. Aaron Rodgers has posted a 97.5 passer rating this season, his lowest number since taking over as starter in 2008. He has thrown for 300 or more yards only three times this season with three games to go — he achieved that feat eight times in 2014 — and his current average of 6.9 yards per pass attempt would be the lowest of his career as a starter.

On Sunday against Dallas, Rodgers threw for two touchdowns but for just 218 yards, and he has thrown for 220 yards or fewer in three of his past four games.

If you consider what Rick Spielman and the Vikings front office have done in terms of gathering depth and personnel on both sides of the ball, it really feels like the Vikings finally have gotten back into position to be a dominant force in the NFC North.

The last time the Vikings won the division was in 2009, but even that team — which, led by 40-year-old quarterback Brett Favre, featured a number of aging stars on both sides of the ball — didn’t have the feel of future potential that this squad does.

Set for bowl game

While Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys said he most likely won’t hire a new offensive coordinator until the American Football Coaches Association meetings Jan. 10-13 in San Antonio, he does know how the staff will work for the Dec. 28 Quick Lane Bowl against Central Michigan in Detroit.

Rob Reeves [the current H-backs/tight ends coach] will take over on offense and calling the plays,” Claeys said. “Rob did that for us when we left Northern Illinois and went to the [Humanitarian Bowl]. He’s done the play-calling, so he’ll take over that. With that, Nate Griffin has been our offensive quality control guy, and he’ll help more with the tight ends. Then Trevor Olson, who played for us at Northern Illinois and has been the [graduate assistant] here the last couple of years, and Jay Nunez [special teams quality control coach], they’ll work with the offensive line.”


• Give Mark Dienhart, former senior vice president of St. Thomas and now president and CEO of the Schulze Family Foundation, credit for hiring Tommies football coach Glenn Caruso in 2008, even though he struggled at Macalester with a 6-12 record over two seasons. In 100 games at St. Thomas, Caruso is 87-13 going into Friday’s NCAA Division III championship game against Mount Union. Dienhart built the St. Thomas athletic program into one of the best D-III programs in the country.

• The Gophers are in better shape after getting a commitment from Seth Green, the former East Ridge QB, than they would have been with decommitted QB recruit Tony Poljan of Lansing, Mich., who no one else was recruiting as a quarterback. Green had previously committed to Oregon and is a 10-pin strike for the Gophers. Claeys and his staff also landed a great recruit in Antoine Winfield Jr., the son of former Viking Antoine Winfield and a defensive back out of The Woodlands, Texas, who had offers from Missouri, Purdue, Northwestern and SMU.

• Twins General Manager Terry Ryan believes there is a good chance that Danny Santana, who hit .319 in 2014 before hitting just .215 last season, will regain his form. Santana is playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, hitting .303 with five doubles, 11 RBI and seven runs scored in 23 games. Other Twins playing well at winter ball include Eduardo Escobar, who is hitting .307 with four doubles, six RBI and three runs in nine games in Venezuela. And Kennys Vargas is hitting .265 with a .351 on-base percentage, three home runs, 13 RBI and 12 runs in 23 games in Puerto Rico.

• Former Gophers receiver Eric Decker grabbed seven passes for 74 yards and a score in the Jets’ 30-8 victory over Tennessee on Sunday. He has caught touchdown passes in nine of the 12 games he has played this season and has 66 receptions for 875 yards on the season. In that same game, former Gophers running back David Cobb had only two carries for the Titans, a week after he had a season-best 13 carries for 40 yards in a 42-39 victory at Jacksonville.

• Former Gophers tight end Maxx Williams returned Sunday after missing last week because of a concussion. The Ravens rookie has 19 receptions for 168 yards and a TD this season.


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.