Coming off a 3-13 season and a top five draft position last year, few critics and fans saw this team making any noise in 2012. Thanks to a phenomenal draft class and the inspired play of Adrian Peterson, the team put together a very impressive start to the season, only to struggle in recent weeks. They kept hopes alive, however, by capping off a division win against the Detroit Lions, which was crucial going into the bye week.
At 6-4 and on the bubble (thanks to a pathetic loss against the Seattle Seahawks), what can be expected from this Vikings team going forward? Before we delve into the details, it must be noted that the Vikings’ last six games are perhaps the most grueling of any team in the NFL. They get the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers twice, a Houston Texans team that looks like the most likely contender as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, and a game in St. Louis. These four teams combine for a whopping 24-11-1 (yes, the Rams were involved in a tie) record.
Let’s start with the good news. Aside from the New England Patriots and possibly the Indianapolis Colts, who they play twice, the Texans don’t really face any major challenges the rest of the way. Since the Vikings game against the Texans is a Week 16 matchup, there is a possibility that the Texans will have already clinched a first round playoff bye by then. Even as it is, the Vikings match up fairly well against the Texans, with the ability to stop the run, but if Houston’s stars are out, the Vikings have a good shot at winning the game. Same holds true against a Rams team which is still rebuilding under new Head Coach Jeff Fisher.
Now for the bad news. The Packers are getting hot. While their defense is suspect, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is still doing work despite a depleted wide receiver unit. One can expect them to be significantly more healthy by the time this division clash occurs. With cornerback Chris Cook out for the remainder of the season, the Vikings have looked vulnerable against the pass. This can be clearly seen when comparing the Vikings’ two games against the Lions and the impact that Calvin Johnson had. He was practically shut down in the first matchup, but exploded for a 200+ yard game in the second. The Packers don’t have a receiver of Megatron’s ability, but they have a nice stable of weapons on that offense, quite possibly too many for the Vikings to handle. Their one dimensionality will work in Minnesota’s favor, as the Vikings will likely be able to stop the run and get pressure on Aaron Rodgers with just the front four, but having seen what rookie quarterbacks have done to the Vikings secondary this year, why should things be any different from the 2011 MVP?
The Bears, I believe, are a bit more vulnerable. Yes, they have Brandon Marshall who’s third in yards in the NFL, but other than him, the passing game has nothing. Running back Matt Forte will also be a threat, as the Vikings have had difficulty stopping the run in recent weeks.
The defense is a different story. The Bears are a turnover creating machine, and if the Vikings are going to have any chance against them, Christian Ponder is going to need to play the kind of ball that he did early in the season. Eliminate the turnovers, have good first down plays, and being creative on offense will lead to victory. That and playing good defense. In short, if they can play the same kind of hard-nosed ball as they did against the San Francisco 49ers, the Vikings will have a good shot against the division leaders.
The bye week has come at the perfect time. Percy Harvin is banged up, and Adrian Peterson surely needs a little rest after leading the NFL in rushing yards over the first ten weeks. Christian Ponder’s confidence has to be high after his last performance, but the biggest tests are yet to come. Let’s see how offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave fits Percy Harvin back into an offense which looked, well, impressive against Detroit in Week 10.
So what can we expect from this team? Realistically speaking, in order to make the playoffs, they will have to be at LEAST 3-3, giving them a record of 9-7 to end the year. 10-6 would definitely get them in, but that’s a lot to ask for with the schedule at hand. I predict they finish the year 9-7, by beating the Bears and Packers once, and taking care of business in St. Louis. What do YOU think?