Let me see a show of hands. How many of you actually thought that the Vikings had a snowball's chance in hell to go 8-8 this season? Yet after their improbable victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and Sunday's win versus the struggling Lions, I believe that is a conservative estimate.
Look, when Jay Cutler is only the third- or maybe even the fourth-best quarterback in his own division, you know this is one tough place to play. Yet that is exactly the scenario as Vikings QB Christian Ponder continues to develop.
I'm not suggesting that Minnesota will win the division. But they could, and that alone is astonishing enough to write about. It also changes the playoff landscape for the entire division.
If the Vikings are nearly as good as advertised thus far, the NFC North is easily the best division in the NFL. That is, assuming it wasn't already.
Well, for one, it is no longer certain that more than one playoff team will come from the North. For that to happen, teams like the Bears were counting on two victories over the hapless Vikings and that is no longer going to be such an easy task, as Detroit found out on Sunday.
After four games, the Vikings are 3-1. Amazingly, they are in the hunt for the division title, and look to be here to stay. That likely means that teams in the North will need to win the division outright to make the playoffs.
Following their loss to Minnesota, the Lions are struggling at 1-3. The Packers barely held on against the winless Saints to improve to 2-2, and the Bears look to improve to 3-1 with a win over Dallas on Monday night.
Prior to the sudden resurgence of Minnesota, the division was already very tough. Still, the Packers, Bears and Lions were all expected to win 10 games or more by many preseason prognosticators, including yours truly.
But that optimist was, in part, based on a previously expected 2-0 record versus the Vikes. Now, that all changes.
Meanwhile, the Packers and Lions are off to shaky starts anyway, and it truly is anyone's division to take. So, just how is Minnesota able to create such a shocking turnaround?
Adrian Peterson Is Getting Healthy
Peterson came into this season with huge question marks for a left knee. But against the Lions, he rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries. On the season, the 27-year-old Peterson has rushed for 230 yards, a 4.0 yard average and two touchdowns.
The two touchdowns came in the win against Jacksonville.
That is quite amazing for a guy who had major reconstructive surgery just eight months ago. He also had suffered a complete rupture of the medial collateral ligament. Yet here is he, helping the Vikings win.
Christian Ponder Is Taking the Next Step
Ponder didn't do much against the Lions, but he didn't lose the game at least. Plus, he played with a sore neck. Still, he is capable of being more than a game manager.
The Florida State alum throws well on the run. On the season, he has a 104.9 passer rating, and he does not turn the ball over. He has four TDs and zero interceptions.
On Sunday, Percy Harvin had a 105-yard kickoff return and Marcus Sherels had a 77-yard punt return and both went for touchdowns in the victory.
Minnesota ranks fifth in the NFC in total defense. On Sunday, safeties Jamarca Sanford and Harrison Smith played especially well.
The defense has been very physical, as one would expect from a Leslie Frazier-coached team.
In short, they are learning how to win. Former Bear Frazier has his team playing hard-nosed football and that is no chiche. Multiple times in 2011 they had the lead in the second half, only to find a way to lose.
Now, they are finding a way to win.
You can call it winning ugly, if you want, but if the Vikings keep winning, the landscape of the North will be quite different than planned.
In fact, it already is.
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