In the trips to the playoffs they've made in recent seasons, the Minnesota Vikings haven't exactly been a picture of a team that's respected or feared.
The last. . .and only. . .time the Vikings met tomorrow's opponent, the Green Bay Packers, in the post-season, the Vikings were a mess. They had lost two games to the Packers during the regular season, both by three points courtesy of last-second Ryan Longwell field goals, en route to the Packers winning the NFC North that season. They then backed into the post-season at 8-8 after a loss to the Washington Redskins (and getting the sequence of events they needed to make it to the playoffs). After that game, center Matt Birk was reportedly ready to beat the crap out of star wide receiver Randy Moss for walking off of the field early.
The Packers, on the other hand, came into that game winners of nine of their final eleven after a 1-4 start. They were firing on all cylinders offensively, and appeared to have Minnesota's number. The Vikings appeared to be in big trouble, with pretty much nobody expecting them to walk out of Lambeau Field with a victory on that Sunday afternoon.
Remember what happened? Here you go.
Yes, the Vikings shocked the world, sent Joe Buck into a legendary hissy fit, and moved on to the second round of the playoffs.
A more recent example, you say? Well, how about Minnesota's last trip to the post-season in 2009. Despite playing well enough to receive a first-round bye and the right to host a divisional playoff game, the Vikings were viewed as the weaker team going into their first playoff game. That's because they were playing the Dallas Cowboys. . .and, boy, were the Cowboys hot coming into that one. They had won their last three regular season contests, including back-to-back shutouts in Weeks 16 and 17, and followed that up with a pretty sound thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild card round of the playoffs. Man, the Cowboys were on such a roll and were playing so well that the Vikings really didn't stand a chance.
So, what happened? Here you go.
Yep, the Vikings took down the "red hot" Cowboys when everyone was picking against them. Then the season ended and everyone lived happily ever after. That's the story I've always heard, anyway.
So, once again the Minnesota Vikings find themselves in the playoffs, and they don't have a lot of people supporting their cause. Oh, there's no way they can beat the Packers at Lambeau Field. . .ignoring the fact that there wasn't supposed to be any way for the Vikings to beat the Packers last week because of how super duper awesome the Packers are in domes and such. The Packers are just too talented. . .the Packers are just too good. . .the Packers have Aaron Rodgers. . .I'm sure you've heard all of it since last Sunday night. How bad is it?
The San Francisco 49ers are already game-planning for a match-up against the Green Bay Packers next week.
Yeah. So there's that.
The Vikings aren't favored to win on Saturday night in Green Bay, and they shouldn't be. . .don't get me wrong on that. As it stands right now, the Packers are a better team than the Vikings are. How much better is something that we could debate for a while. . .and the gap is significantly smaller than it was just 12 months ago. . .but they should be the favorite as it stands now.
For whatever reason, the folks that cover the National Football League just don't seem to be as impressed with the turnaround of the Minnesota Vikings as they probably should be. To hear these folks talk about the Minnesota Vikings going into this season, the "rebuilding" of this team was supposed to take anywhere between ten and thirty years, and it was going to take a significant amount of time before the Vikings caught up to not only the Packers, but to the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions in the NFC North. (Remember when the Lions were better than the Vikings? That was weird, huh?)
Yet as we sit here, just hours before the start of the 2012 NFL playoffs, the Lions are 4-12 and in the top 5 of the 2013 NFL Draft, and the Bears are looking for a new head coach after missing the post-season following a 7-1 start. But the Minnesota Vikings. . .a team that, just one year ago, had a franchise player coming off of knee surgery, no stadium, and (allegedly) no hope going forward. . .sit ready to take on the Packers in the wild card round of the playoffs. Sure, they've done it on the legs of Adrian Peterson. . .but a ton of credit has to go to a lot of younger players on this team. Guys like left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith, and kicker Blair Walsh have played big roles for this team in their first season, and going into this season half of the Vikings' roster had two years of NFL experience or less. The stars on this team are playing like stars, but the role of the youth and their ability to accelerate the rebuilding process is not to be ignored.
The Minnesota Vikings can win this football game, and they need to do it the way they've won games all season long. They need to minimize their mistakes, whether it's Christian Ponder continuing to be smart with the football or the defense not taking dumb penalties or whatever else. Again, it doesn't get any simpler for the Vikings than the turnover ratio. . .in games where the Vikings are even or better in that aspect, they're 10-0 this season. In games where they're in the negative, they're 0-6. In the first game against the Packers, they were -1 (two Ponder interceptions vs. one for Rodgers), and they lost a winnable game. In the second game, they were +1 (with Rodgers' fumble being the only turnover of the afternoon), and they held on for the victory.
The Vikings also need to continue feeding the monster. Let me assure you. . .the Packers' defense did not want to play this week. They wanted to rest up, they wanted to see a weakened opponent in the divisional round. . .and they most certainly didn't want to see #28 in purple and white on the other side of the line of scrimmage in sub-freezing temperatures. Not just the Packers' front seven, even though they've been pretty soundly thrashed in the first two meetings (regardless of what B.J. Raji's finger-wagging would have you believe). It also appears that pretty much every defensive back on the Green Bay roster is scared to death of the mere thought of tackling the man. . .which is exactly the way it should be. Based on everything we've seen thus far this season, the Vikings will give them plenty of reasons to justify their fear.
This game will likely, however, come down to Minnesota's quarterback play. Just how "limited" is Christian Ponder with his elbow injury? If he's too limited, how short will the leash be before Leslie Frazier goes with the healthier Joe Webb and the potential match-up problems he could create for a Green Bay defense that probably hasn't properly prepared for him? Can both Ponder and (potentially) Webb avoid making the big mistakes that could turn the momentum of a ball game like this? If the answers to those questions tilt in the Vikings favor, the odds of them being victorious in this game go up.
Could the Vikings go out and lose this game by 40 points? I suppose it's possible. . .I think the odds of it happening are the same as the Vikings winning by 40 points, but I guess it's a possibility. If the Vikings can play the same brand of clean football that they've played over the course of their four-game winning streak, it's a winnable game. The Minnesota Vikings have been defying the odds since August, and whether they win or lose on Saturday night, they've established that they're a team moving in the right direction.
But, man. . .it sure would be awesome if they won and made a lot of people look foolish just one more time, wouldn't it?