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Everyone saw the pre-season predictions that were attached to the Minnesota Vikings going into the 2012 NFL season. Most sources, whether they were in print or on the internet or wherever they were, had the Vikings pegged for somewhere between three and five victories. . .I think I might have seen one magazine put the Vikings as high as 6-10 for this season. It was expected that Minnesota would be among a group of teams that would be fighting for the right to pick first in the 2013 NFL Draft, and the reasons for such predictions were myriad. . .and, quite frankly, understandable.
-The rest of the NFC North is just too darn good.
-The Vikings just don't have the talent to compete at this point.
-Christian Ponder isn't the answer at quarterback, and was vastly overdrafted.
-Adrian Peterson isn't anywhere near ready to go after injuring his knee in 2011.
-Leslie Frazier is in way over his head as a head coach.
And on and on and on. We heard all the reasons and, as I said, most of them were pretty hard to disagree with. Most of us fully expected a long season and a losing record, even though we were obviously hoping for the best for our favorite football team.
All of this makes the fact that the Minnesota Vikings currently sit in a first-place tie in the NFC North that much more surprising. . .and, after what fans of this team endured in 2011, that much more satisfying. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the fact that the Vikings have done this is the way they've done it.
The Vikings, who had the second-worst scoring defense in the National Football League in 2011, currently sit in 7th in the league in points allowed. And while some people might say that the Vikings haven't exactly played the most high-flying offenses in the league, they haven't exactly been playing slouches either, particularly the past two weeks. In Week 3, the Vikings played the San Francisco 49ers, a team that averaged 30.3 points/game in their three victories, but only managed 13 in their trip to the Metrodome. Likewise, the Detroit Lions had put up 41 points in a loss in Week 3, and were the fourth-highest scoring offense in 2011, but they could only manage 13 against the Vikings, too.
The defensive improvement can be directly linked to what I perceive to be a huge jump in the performance of the secondary. Yes, they're not getting a ton of interceptions or anything, but they're also not getting destroyed the way they were in 2011, either. In 2011, when poor performance, injuries, and other issues laid waste to the Vikings' secondary, the team had a total of 58 passes defended in 16 games, or roughly 3.6/game. This season, through four games, they already have 24, or 6/game. They're also allowing a lower yards/attempt than they were in 2011. . .last season, the number was 8.1 yards/pass attempts, while this season that figure sits at 6.5. The tackling also seems to be markedly better in the back seven so far this season, and rookies Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson have played a big part in that.
Speaking of the 2012 draft class, and the youth in general on this roster, this team appears to have grown up very quickly. Christian Ponder has advanced more rapidly than just about anyone could have imagined. While he's not throwing for 350 yards and 4 touchdowns a game, he's doing what a team that's built like the Minnesota Vikings needs him to do. . .he's not turning the ball over. He lost a fumble in each of the first two games, but is still the only starting quarterback in the National Football League that has not thrown an interception thus far in 2012. After his up-and-down 2011 debut, where he threw 13 interceptions in 10 games, seeing the way he has developed into a smart, efficient quarterback has been enjoyable to see.
Ponder's 2011 classmate, tight end Kyle Rudolph, is quickly turning into one of the league's better tight ends. Matt Kalil has been outstanding as the starting left tackle thus far, and the offensive line as a whole (which is among the NFL's youngest) has played significantly better than last year's version. Robinson, Smith, and Mistral Raymond (prior to his injury) have improved the secondary by leaps and bounds in the early part of the season. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh might have a longer range than any kicker in the league, and the work that special teams coach Mike Priefer has done with him has given the Vikings a scoring option from 50 yards and beyond. Through the first four weeks of the 2012 season, it's really hard to find a position on the roster that hasn't been performing at a much higher level than it did in 2011.
The Vikings' veterans also seem to have been revitalized in the early going. Antoine Winfield has been all over the place in the secondary, Jared Allen is leading the pass rush as he did last year, and we've been over what Adrian Peterson has accomplished despite his setbacks. But the real story this year among the veterans has got to be Percy Harvin. Yes, he's a veteran. . .heck, on this team, with three-plus years of NFL experience, he's practically a senior citizen.
If #12 isn't the best non-quarterback in the NFL right now (on offense, anyway), the list of guys that are better is a pretty short one. After his short-lived contract "issue" this off-season, he's done exactly what a guy in his position should do. . .gone out and played his tail off every week to show the Vikings that he's worth top dollar. Between receiving, rushing, and kick returns, his price tag goes up with every single week that goes by in 2012, and the Vikings will have to get something done with him sooner rather than later.
The early success of the 2012 Minnesota Vikings shows exactly why it is that we, as fans, enjoy this league and this sport as much as we do. Anybody that thinks they have a handle on this league or that they're an "expert" on it is a liar. Very few, even the most staunch of fans, had the Vikings at 3-1 or the Arizona Cardinals at 4-0 or the New Orleans Saints at 0-4. . .though we don't really feel terribly bad about that last one, do we? But the Vikings, relative to their expectations from the media at large going into the 2012 season, are very close to the point where they're going to be playing with "house money." After all, if a team was only supposed to win three or four games, anything they win beyond that is gravy, right?
With the National Football League being what it is, a Vikings' team that nobody expected anything from this year could. . .could. . .be 9-1 going into their bye week. They could also be 3-7. The answer is likely going to be somewhere in between. With a physical defense and a conservative (at present) offense, the current approach that the Vikings are taking is an old school one, but it's working for them to this point.
Is it sustainable? I don't know. But I have the feeling that this team is going to give us a lot more to cheer about over the rest of this season than we've had in quite a while.