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Good Vikes vs. Bad Vikes: How will it shake out?

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What will 2013 hold for Adrian Peterson? Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.
What will 2013 hold for Adrian Peterson? Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

I can’t imagine any team having more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality than the Minnesota Vikings, and they’ve proved it the past two years.

Someone should’ve been locked up during the Vikes’ dismal 3-13 record in 2011, lowlighted by Adrian Peterson’s injury in Washington. The team beat only Arizona, Carolina and that ill-fated game against the Redskins. Most pundits and prognosticators thought the team would be at best marginally better in 2012.

Instead, Dr. Jekyll-like, the team went 10-6, reaching the playoffs by winning the final four games, with Peterson coming within a whisker of breaking Eric Dickerson’s  rushing record. 

But the NFL is a league of parity, and the Vikings are Exhibit A. Though the team lost 13 in 2011, only three of those games were blowouts, and the season started with losses of 24-17, 24-20, 26-23 (in OT) and 22-17. And though the team won 10 in 2012,  it narrowly won against the Jaguars at home in the opener and barely won games against the Lions on the road and Bears at home. Losses included a Thursday night vs. lowly Tampa Bay, the team’s worst performance.

From 3-13 to 10-6, an increase of seven games. Which way will they go this year?

The power rankings place them solidly in the middle. ESPN put them at 17th, AP 16th, CBS Sports 18th, NFL.com 13th. Pro Football Talk placed them at 16th and Yahoo 18th. 

The consensus? “The team might be good but could be bad, so we’ll just say they’ll be average.”

Let's act like Sigmund Freud for a second. Please don't think I'm crazy.

Hyde: The schedule is much tougher after last year’s successful campaign. The team faced cupcakes Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona at the Metrodome, and played its only horrible game of the season against the Buccaneers. 

Jekyll: But the team lost in Indianapolis to what proved to be a rejuvenated, Luck-y Colts team. And the Vikes won handily in St. Louis (36-22) and Houston (23-6) to reach the playoffs. What’s more, Minnesota played Seattle, Washington and the 49ers, so the team ended up facing six playoff teams. That doesn’t sound like a cupcake schedule to me.

Hyde: The Vikings are in a tough division. Some pick the team fourth. After all, the Lions are bound to be better after a terrible year, and the Bears were good last year. 

Jekyll: You are insane, sir. Let’s consider the matter logically, as a doctor must. The Bears still have problems with their offensive line, and recall that for sentimental reasons the media want to see the team in the playoffs. And the Lions had so many issues in 2012 that only a fool would believe they’ve solved them all.

Hyde: But the Packers. Surely you fear them.

Jekyll: Of course. But they have issues too. Is their defense improved from 2012? What about their rushing?

Hyde: I’ve saved the best for last. Christian Ponder. How can you believe the Vikings will be better with him as quarterback? He’s an albatross around their neck.

Jekyll: Surely you know the power of transformation. The team scored 117 points down the stretch, against divisional foes Chicago and Green Bay at home and the Rams and Texans on the road. Ponder played well at the end, and was hurt and couldn’t play during the loss vs. the Packers in the playoffs. Isn’t it rational to believe Ponder will be the player he was at the end of the season?

Hyde: We’ll see about that. And what about all the tough teams the Vikings play? 

Jekyll: Let’s take a closer look. Browns and Panthers at home, that’s two wins. The NFC East is the most overrated division. The media love “America’s team,” but the Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game for years. RGIII is coming back from a serious injury and have a porous defense. The Eagles just aren’t very good. At worst, 2-2 and maybe 3-1. How good are the Giants? Their defense was terrible. A win over the Steelers, who aren’t that good now despite an illustrious past, and a loss against the Ravens. I think the Vikings will go 4-2 in their division again, beating the Lions twice and splitting with the Bears and Packers. And they’ll split with two tough teams, losing at Seattle but winning in Cincinnati.

Hyde: Your weakness is your optimism. The Cowboys and Giants will not lose at home against this team. Nor will the Bengals. They could lose twice to the Packers, and will finish 8-8 at best but more likely 6-10 or 7-9.

The Vikings are the perfect team for politically polarized America in 2013, with two diametrically opposed views of how the team could fare. They could be terrific or terrible. 

Vikings fans are nervous and worried, and much of the concern focuses on Ponder. He made plenty of mistakes in 2012, losing the game in Green Bay almost all by himself.

That was a crucial game, players have said. The team played well except for Ponder, who showed terrible judgment. The final score was still only 23-14, and was a learning experience. 

What? A loss is a loss, right?

No. Players knew they belonged on the field with the Packers. Ponder, who’s a smart guy, figured it out too. The Vikings rallied and won all four games at the end, by a combined score of 117-76.

Ponder’s not going to be Tom Brady. But for every Brady, there’s a good QB who just needs, well, not to screw up, like Trent Dilfer and Bart Starr. Good would be good enough for a team as loaded as the Vikings.

Loaded. I’m talking about a frat house on Saturday night. The Vikings have had two great, not good, drafts in a row, though the sports media have not acknowledge this. In 2011, the team selected Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith in the first round, then corner Josh Robinson, safety Robert Blanton and kicker Blair Walsh in later rounds. This year, the team turned a lemon into lemonade by trading Percy Harvin and getting a first-rounder in return; signing Greg Jennings; and getting Sharrif Floyd, corner Xavier Rhodes and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. 

Defensive line has been a strength, and it’s better with Floyd and a healthy Jared Allen. The receiving squad was weak in 2012 but now looks like a strength. The unit includes Patterson, Jennings, Rudolph, Jarius Wright, Jerome Simpson (for a full season now) and a newly healthy tight end John Carlson. 

Most of the focus on the three first-round picks has been on Floyd and Patterson. I think both players will be great. But perhaps the most important is the other first-rounder, Rhodes.

Pass defense has been the biggest weakness for a long time. In 2011, the secondary proved to be easy pickings despite a great rush. Almost unbelievably, the Vikes intercepted only eight passes. General manager Rick Spielman has been Merlin-like in his draft wizardry. He’s made the secondary stronger by drafting Smith, Robinson, Blanton and Rhodes. The veterans are Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson. Is that unit good enough?

The team has a strong defensive line but a suspect though improving secondary, with a rookie, Rhodes, and a second-year man, Robinson, in particularly prominent roles at corner. Let’s not forget that receivers in the division include Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. 

Prediction: The Vikings will be a better team but finish with the same record, 10-6.

Fueled by another great season from Peterson, they’ll make the playoffs as a wild card and win their first game before falling. They’re just a few players from winning it all, at least assuming the 49ers and Seahawks falter.

Worst-case scenario: Injuries hurt the Vikes, and division rivals Chicago and Detroit are energized, and the team is 7-9. Some tough losses on the road keep the team out of the playoffs. Areas of concern focus on the defensive line, where Floyd and veteran Kevin Williams were hurt in preseason. Allen is not young anymore. Will this line generate enough pressure to make certain the secondary isn’t victimized?

Against weak and average teams, yes. Against elite teams such as the 49ers and Seahawks, no. I can see the Vikings beating the Packers and evenly balanced NFC East teams, but not Seattle or San Francisco, which dominated the Peterson-less Vikings (OK, fine, he was in for two plays and didn’t touch the ball and no one appeared to touch him) in preseason. I think are Atlanta and New Orleans are better too.

One more year. Maybe.