Before the 2012 NFL season began, the number of pundits who believed the Minnesota Vikings were going to improve from their 3-13 record and last-place finish in the NFC North could have fit into a Smart Car.
Many preseason rankings had the Vikings in the bottom 10 of the NFL. Even after their convincing 24-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3, I found the the Vikings' average ranking to be 18th in the NFL.
Now, after winning their third straight game, and exceeding their win total from 2011, people are starting to take notice. Some early power rankings before the Monday game between the Texans and the Jets have the Vikings in the top half of the NFL. The highest ranking I found was from B/R featured columnist Steven Gerwel, who has the Vikings at No. 7.
Yes, people are starting to notice, and for good reason. Here are several as to why the Minnesota Vikings are for real.
Improved play at quarterback.
That seventh-place ranking seems appropriate considering that the Vikings' turnaround can be pinpointed in part to the improved play of second-year quarterback Christian Ponder.
Currently with the 10th-highest quarterback rating at 95.5, Ponder finally threw his first interception of the season against the Titans on Sunday. In fact, he threw two of them on consecutive passes.
Last season that would have been enough to rattle the rookie from Florida State. On Sunday, after the second interception, his defense forced the Titans to punt on a three-and-out, and Ponder finished the game 10-of-11 for 90 yards and two touchdowns.
On the very next drive, the Vikings went with five consecutive pass plays, confirming head coach Leslie Frazier has confidence in his young quarterback.
The best running back in the NFL.
Adrian Peterson is a freak of nature, or the hardest working man in the NFL. His comeback from a major knee injury has been well documented. In less than eight months he fully rehabilitated his left knee.
He leads the Vikings with 420 rushing yards putting him currently seventh in the NFL in rushing. A beast inside the red zone, Peterson can smell the end zone. He is the NFL leader is rushing touchdowns with 66 since joining the NFL in 2007.
The leader in all-purpose yards helps.
I've said it before, and I will say it again. Percy Harvin is a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. On offense he can create mismatches anywhere on the field. Typically in the slot, Harvin has been given the ball out of the backfield, on the end around, lined as the split end and from a direct snap from center.
With 345 return yards on kickoffs, including a 105-yard return for a touchdown, he leads the NFL with 814 all-purpose yards. He has scored touchdowns on a return, on the ground and through the air.
An improved defense is making a difference.
Last season the Vikings finished dead last in the NFL allowing 34 touchdowns passes, and finished 31st in the league in scoring. So far after five games this season the Vikings are sixth in points allowing an average of 15.8 points per game—down from 28.1 points per game last season.
Leading the charge is strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway. The Vikings' leading tackler the last four seasons, he is currently second in the NFL in tackles, having so far the best season in his career.
The Vikings made a deal to move back into the first round, using the 29th pick in the draft to select Harrison Smith from Notre Dame. Through five games, according to Pro-Football Reference.com, he leads the Vikings with six passes defensed and has shown the ability to put the big hit on receivers.
In the Detroit game, he knocked a ball out of the hands of Calvin Johnson in the end zone.
Another rookie who has raised the level of play in the defensive backfield is cornerback Josh Robinson, selected by the Vikings in the third round. Robinson picked off Alex Smith in Week 3 for the Vikings' first interception of the season. He joins Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' oldest player at 35, who continues to be a steady defender and sure tackler.
And I didn't mention they have Jared Allen, who led the NFL with 22 sacks last season.
The Vikings have a consistent scorer they can count on.
When the Vikings used a sixth-round pick to select Blair Walsh from Georgia, it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. After all, the Vikings had a reliable veteran in Ryan Longwell. In six years with the Vikings, Longwell had become the third-leading scorer in franchise history.
Then before training camp they cut him, leaving no competition for Walsh and handing him the kicking duties.
Since then, all he has done is convert 12 of 13 field goals, three of them from over 50 yards. He is currently third in the NFL with 48 points and has not shown any signs of being rattled. His longest field goal of the season came in Week 1 against the Jaguars when he hit a 55-yarder with four seconds left in the game. It sent the game into overtime, where he won it with a 38-yard field goal.
The team is taking on the personality of its coach.
Head coach Frazier finally had a full offseason to prepare his team. He was named interim coach in 2010, taking over in Week 12 for Brad Childress. In 2011, the NFL lockout wiped out the summer minicamps and OTAs. A truncated training camp did not give Frazier enough time to put things together, and it showed on the field.
Last season, the Vikings gave away increasing halftime leads of 10,17 and 20 points in their first three games. They opened the season 1-6 behind veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb before making the switch to Ponder.
A soft-spoken man, Frazier has gone with a young roster in 2012 after releasing guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera, kicker Longwell, linebacker E.J. Henderson and cornerback Cedric Griffin—all over the age of 30, or will turn 30 this season in the case of Griffin.
The team is more disciplined, taking fewer penalties. According to footballdb.com, the Vikings averaged 6.8 penalties per game in 2011. So far this season they have reduced that to 5.4 per game. The biggest improvement has been in false starts, where the Vikings averaged 1.25 per game last year but have only committed one this season through five games.
An argument could be made that the Vikings have not faced very stiff competition in 2012. The combined record of their opponents is 9-14; only the 49ers have a winning record. But two of these teams were in the playoffs last season. The Vikings' only loss came to the Colts, who are 2-2 after defeating the Packers on Sunday.
With three straight convincing wins, Minnesota has served notice that it is a team not to be overlooked—just ask the 49ers, Lions and Titans.