Minnesota Vikings: Are the Vikings Playoff Contenders or Overachievers in 2012?

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Minnesota Vikings: Are the Vikings Playoff Contenders or Overachievers in 2012?
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings' season has not gone the way that their fans expected it to go.

When this sentence is uttered, it usually means that a roster loaded with talent has found a way to fall flat on its face in the first couple weeks of the season and find themselves in a deep hole at the bottom of the NFC North standings.

However, in a refreshing change of events, the Vikings have gotten off to a strong 3-1 start with a roster that many thought was in the midst of a deep rebuilding mode.

The Vikings' fast start has convinced some fans to start buying their playoff tickets now, while others want to make sure that they are not impostors of a playoff-bound team.

When you look at the Vikings' results so far, their fans can't help but be encouraged.

Without a completely healed Adrian Peterson (who continues to recover from ACL surgery last offseason), the Vikings have been able to show off one of their new toys on offense: Christian Ponder.

Ponder hasn't been able to launch the ball down field with the precision of a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but he's been able to play the Alex Smith role in the Viking offense.

If you need a translation, Ponder needs to take care of the football and make the right plays in order for the team to be successful.

In the early going, the second-year quarterback has done just that. Ponder is the only starting quarterback in the NFL to not record an interception in the first four weeks. That's helped some of his newly acquired targets become effective (if not explosive) in the Viking offense through Week 4.

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The Vikings have also gotten a huge surprise out of their defense. As a unit that was expected to be one of the worst in football this season, the Vikings currently rank 7th in the league in points allowed (72), and 11th in expected points contributed according to Pro-Football-Reference.com (-2.59).

The rushing defense for the Vikings has been revived to rank 7th in the league after spending a majority of the past decade at the top of that category.

However, the passing defense has been the most mind-boggling as they rank 16th in the league in opponent passer rating at 88.8. While that's not dominant, consider the Vikings were ranked dead last in the league with a mind-blowing 107.6 opposing QB rating. Anything was going to be considered an improvement.

For all the positives, the Vikings still have some negatives that they need to work on to reach the playoffs.

The most glaring is the lack of big plays that the offense has produced so far. While Ponder has been incredibly efficient, he currently ranks 25th in the NFL in passing yards.

The Vikings haven't been able to find a deep threat to open up the offense early, but the return of Jerome Simpson (who recorded 50 receiving yards in his debut on Sunday) could change that.

The strength of schedule for the Vikings hasn't exactly been a gauntlet either. The Vikings have played one winning team this season (San Francisco 49ers), and still play three of their next five against losing opponents before diving into stiffer competition.

If the Vikings can pass those tests against teams such as the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals and divisional rivals Green Bay and Chicago, they could find a way to become the NFL's biggest surprise in 2012.

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