Heading into Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans, the Minnesota Vikings were heading into a trap game. On paper this was a game they were supposed to win, especially after defeating the 49ers and Lions the previous two weeks—both playoff teams from last season.
It kind of felt like the Indianapolis game from Week 2. A winnable game on paper that somehow the Vikings would give away. After all they were facing a veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck who has played in a Super Bowl.
This time the Vikings left no doubt. Despite going three-and-out on their first drive, they scored 13 first-half points and finished off the Titans in convincing fashion 30-7.
The Vikings have now exceeded their win total from last season. They are sitting tied atop the NFC North with Chicago at 4-1. You have to go back 18 games before this season to find the four previous wins for the Vikings.
Everything is going well for the Vikings, and the 3-13 season of 2011 is fading like a bad dream upon waking in the morning. On the horizon are the Washington Redskins who fell to 2-3 with their loss to the Falcons.
Here are 10 things we learned about the Vikings from their win over the Titans.
The Vikings were five-and-a-half point favorites heading into their game against the Titans. If the home field is worth three points then that means the Vikings were in for a challenge against the Titans.
It really shouldn't have been that close. After all, the Vikings were 3-1 with two convincing wins against the 49ers and Lions. Tennessee, on the other hand, was coming to town with a 1-3 record and without its starting quarterback Jake Locker.
The one positive the Titans did have going for them was that running back Chris Johnson was coming off his best game of the season, rushing for 141 yards against the Houston Texans—a team many people feel is the best in the NFL.
However, he was not a real threat against the Vikings who took control of this game and held the Titans scoreless through three quarters with a convincing 30-7 win.
Through the first four games of the season, Christian Ponder had yet to throw an interception. Luck seemed to be on his side as several balls found their way into the arms of defenders only to be dropped.
For a while there you might have thought he was playing against the Vikings' defense from last season.
Then, on consecutive throws, he found Titans safeties. First, he threw an interception to Robert Johnson to end the Minnesota's last drive of the first half and then he was picked off by Jordan Babineaux on the first drive of the second half.
Despite the two picks, Ponder finished 25-of-35 for 258 yards and had two touchdown passes to go with his two interceptions.
His quarterback passer rating dropped from 97.7 entering the game to 95.5 afterward.
In the win over the Titans, quarterback Christian Ponder completed passes to eight different receivers, and seven of them were not named Percy Harvin.
The wide receiver tandem of Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu matched its combined season high of six receptions, as each recorded three catches. Stephen Burton also doubled his season total, making one catch for six yards.
Ponder also completed passes to all three tight ends, with Kyle Rudolph making four catches while Rhett Ellison had two receptions and John Carlson had one.
In his second game back after a three-game suspension, Jerome Simpson was held without a catch.
Speaking of Harvin...
Even though there was no doubt that Percy Harvin was the Vikings' best offensive weapon, Sunday's game against the Titans reinforced it.
Harvin led all receivers with eight catches for 108 yards and carried the ball for another eight yards. He scored his first offensive touchdown of the season. In fact, he scored two—one running and one receiving.
When the Minnesota Vikings get in the red zone, Christian Ponder knows where to throw the ball.
This season, the second-year quarterback definitely has developed a connection with second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph. Ponder has six touchdowns on the season and four of them have gone to Rudolph.
Rudolph made another incredible touchdown grab over two Tennessee defenders on a 15-yard pass from Ponder. It sealed the game for the Vikings, making the score 30-7 with 6:45 left in the game.
The Minnesota Vikings defense is much improved over last season.
All right that's not saying a whole lot with as bad as the defense was in 2011. Last season, Minnesota yielded an average of 358 yards allowed per game. So far this season through five games, the defense has allowed 304 yards per game—an improvement of 54 yards per contest.
Against the Titans on Sunday, the Vikings gave up a season-low 267 yards—215 through the air and only 52 on the ground.
The cornerback trio of Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson has really played well this season. Following Robinson's interception last week against the Lions, Winfield picked off Matt Hasselbeck for the team's only two interceptions so far this season.
Speaking of the defense...
Maybe it's because he's a rookie, or maybe it's because he believes the press clippings about him, but Harrison Smith has repeatedly shown that he is a beast on defense.
So far he has been as good as expected when the Vikings moved up in the draft to select the Notre Dame safety with the 29th pick in the first round.
He may want to rein it in a little—or the NFL may force him to do so.
Smith was fined $24,000 for a hit he made on Mike Willie of the Chargers in the preseason. In Sunday's game he was ejected after pushing an official to the side during a scuffle in the second quarter of the Vikings' win over the Titans.
With Mistral Raymond already on the sideline with an injury, it pressed fellow rookie and former Notre Dame teammate Robert Blanton into the game. Fortunately, it did not impact the outcome of the game.
There will certainly be another fine on the way and perhaps a suspension to impress upon the rookie the need for discipline on the field.
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh was a great pick for the Minnesota Vikings. So far nothing seems to rattle this kid.
His 12 points against the Titans gives him 48 on the season placing him third in the NFL in scoring.
He has connected on 12-of-13 of field goal attempts, has made all three of his attempts from greater than 50 yards and 17 of his 27 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.
This was supposed to be the matchup of the top two running backs in the NFL.
Adrian Peterson has the most rushing yards since 2007 when he joined the Vikings, and Chris Johnson has the most since joining the Titans in 2008.
Johnson is also only one of six running backs to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
Yet, in this game, it was no contest.
Peterson dominated this matchup, finishing with 88 yards on only 17 carries, good for a 5.2-yard average. Johnson had only 24 yards on 15 carries—a paltry 1.6 yards per carry.
Johnson was so bad in this game that he finished fourth in rushing. Toby Gerhart had 41 yards on six carries, and Christian Ponder finished with 31 yards on three runs.
Perhaps the right thing for CJ2K to do is to return some of the $8 million in base salary the Titans are paying him.
I don't want to get ahead of myself, and I'm very much afraid to use the "P-word." Originally I had predicted the Vikings to win six games this season, and that was the consensus of the Vegas oddsmakers as well.
It seemed reasonable considering the dismal season they had last year and the fact that they really didn't make any flashy additions to the team.
They also jettisoned the experience of quite a few veterans in favor of younger players, and with youth comes a longer learning curve. At the beginning of the season, the Vikings were counting on four rookies to get considerable playing time.
Now, after starting the season 4-1, they are among the top five teams in the NFC. Only the Atlanta Falcons, who are 5-0, have a better record.
A quick scan of their remaining schedule promises at least another six winnable games. That would give the Vikings 10 on the season and a very good shot at making the postseason.
Now that I got that out of my system, I should remind everyone to calm down. After all, it's a long season and the Vikings haven't faced the either the Bears or the Packers yet.
Although, with the Packers currently 2-3, those two games don't look quite as daunting as they did at the beginning of the season.
Yes, everything is looking up for the Vikings—especially now that baseball season has ended, at least here in Minnesota.