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It's been a long damn time since we had to be nervous about a Minnesota Vikings game, hasn't it folks? After disastrous seasons in 2010 and 2011, the consensus outlook for the team going into this season was "man alive, this team is awful." However, as we enter the final game of the 2012 NFL regular season, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves in a position that 19 other teams in the league wish that they were currently in.
Yes, the Vikings are one of just three teams (along with the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys) that have complete and total control over their own post-season destiny. If the Vikings should come out of Sunday's contest against the Green Bay Packers with a victory, it won't matter what any other NFL team does in Week 17. . .the Vikings will have punched the most improbable of playoff tickets in a year where they were generally expected to be rebuilding and fighting for the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Seriously, nobody's glasses have a darker purple tint than mine do, and I thought that if the Vikings had a few bounces go their way and that some guys exceeded expectations and things went really well this season. . .that they had a shot at getting to .500.
As much as I respect what Eric said in his preview column this week, in my best Bill Lumbergh voice. . .I'm gonna have to, sort of, disagree with him there. Will it sting of the Vikings don't get to the playoffs because of a loss to the Packers this week? Of course it will. . .no point in lying about that, and none of you would believe me if I said otherwise anyway. But is it going to be something worthy of kicking puppies or anything like that? As a Vikings fan, it's not even close. The 1998 NFC Championship Game. . .the 2009 NFC Championship Game. . .the Nathan Poole catch in Arizona in 2003. . .those disappointments were worthy of sending canines into flight.
(Disclaimer: I have never once in my entire life kicked a puppy, or any other animal, nor would I. It's just a saying. Lord knows I don't want an angry Sarah McLachlan on my hands or anything.)
A loss in this one might be depressing for a day or two. But it's hard not to think that the rebuilding process, which was supposed to take a few seasons and likely involve the firing of Leslie Frazier, is already well ahead of schedule. (And besides, New Year's is on Tuesday. . .have a few adult beverages with some good friends and you'll forget all about it.)
With that said, I'm certainly not resigning myself to a loss on Sunday. Far from it. The game at Lambeau. . .the last time the Vikings lost. . .was a winnable football game, and there aren't many reasons to see this one as unwinnable. Yes, Green Bay has won five straight in this rivalry, but I think we can pretty safely say that the Minnesota defense this year is much better than the one that the Vikings put out there in 2010 and 2011. The Vikings, after fielding one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history in 2011, have improved markedly in that department. Nobody's going to be confusing them with the 1985 Bears or anything, but at least they aren't confusing them with, you know, the 2011 Vikings, either. They've also played very well during the team's three-game winning streak.
Green Bay's pass offense hasn't been quite as explosive this year, as they're "only" 10th in the NFL in passing yards/game in 2012. They've also had some injury issues with their deep receiving corps. . .Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson have each missed significant time this year, and the Packers may not have Randall Cobb on Sunday. They've made up for some of that with James Jones (who was rumored to be on the cut or trade block the past two pre-seasons) leading the NFL in touchdown receptions this season.
One move on the Green Bay offense that could play to the Vikings' advantage is that the Packers recently benched Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. . .ugh. . .and moved guard Evan Dietrich-Smith to the center spot. Dietrich-Smith looked okay at center in the Packers' thrashing of the Tennessee Titans last week, but it remains to be seen how the communication will be this week in the slightly more hostile environment of the Metrodome. Rodgers has been the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL this year, and if the Packers' offensive line is a little bit out of sync, the Vikings have the defensive front to take advantage of it.
When the Vikings have the ball, obviously all eyes will be on #28, running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson currently stands 102 yards from being the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, and 208 yards from breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season mark of 2,105 rushing yards. It's going to be tough sledding for Peterson, to be certain. . .but, hey, the guy has been making people look stupid all year. Would it surprise anyone if he managed to do it one more time?
But we can talk about all the numbers we want. . .it all comes back to the one number that has meant more to the Vikings than any other when it comes to their record this season, and that's the turnover margin. I know we've said it the past couple of weeks, but it bears repeating:
When the Minnesota Vikings are even or better in the takeaway/giveaway ratio in 2012, their record is 9-0.
When the Minnesota Vikings are in the negative in the takeaway/giveaway ratio in 2012, their record is 0-6.
And nobody has a greater imperative on them to play a "clean" game in this one than quarterback Christian Ponder. After pretty much bottoming out at Lambeau Field four weeks ago, Ponder has gotten on the slow climb back to respectability, having performed pretty well during the Vikings' three-game winning streak. Yeah, he's not Rodgers or Brady or Manning or anything like that. . .but it appears that Bill Musgrave has finally drawn the conclusion that, with what he has to work with, he's not going to be. (Witness the fact that Percy Harvin hasn't stepped foot on the field for seven calendar weeks, and he still leads this team in both receptions and receiving yardage.) He has, however, been getting better on third downs over the past few weeks, and that's something the Vikings are going to need.
As Ponder goes, so go the Vikings. In the Vikings' nine victories this year, Ponder has thrown five interceptions (and four of those came in a two-game stretch early in the year against Tennessee and Arizona) and committed seven total turnovers (losing a fumble against Jacksonville in the opener and one last week against Houston). In the Vikings' six losses, he's thrown seven interceptions and lost three fumbles for a total of ten turnovers. Ponder needs to exhibit patience against the Packers defense if his reads are covered up, and take advantage of his obvious ability to gain yardage with his legs, something that I'm not sure he's taken advantage of enough this season.
If the Vikings can play a clean game on Sunday and possibly force the Packers into a mistake or two, there's a very good chance we'll be looking at a rematch back at Lambeau Field next Saturday or Sunday. If they can't. . .well, we can start looking forward to the off-season.
And, I can assure you, no puppies will be kicked as a result.