If before the season started, Minnesota fans were told that the Vikings would be 5-3 at the halfway point, most of them would be ecstatic.
After all, that record represents only the fourth time over the past 10 seasons the Vikings have had a winning record through eight games. In two of the previous three seasons in which they achieved that distinction, the Vikings made it to the postseason.
The problem is the Vikings were looking like contenders with a 3-1 record to open the season—matching their win total for all of 2011. They won back-to-back games against playoff teams from last season, including a 24-13 win over the 49ers, whom many considered to be one of the top teams in the NFC.
With success, the expectations climbed, perhaps to unrealistic levels for team that many, myself included, felt was at best a six-win team. A team that finished in last place in the NFC North the past two seasons.
After four games it seemed that head coach Leslie Frazier had found a way to turn things around—and almost as quickly things fell apart.
Only three seasons removed from the NFC Championship game, this team had fallen from 12-4 in 2009 to 3-13 in 2011. Why not believe a meteoric rise was just as likely to happen? With superstars like Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin on offense and Jared Allen on defense, the chance of making it to the playoffs just might be on the edge of plausible.
Since then a bit of reality has set in.
In their past four games the Vikings have gone 2-2. Their losses came in Week 6 to Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins, 38-26, and Week 8 to Josh Freeman and the Buccaneers, 36-17, in their first home loss of the season.
So what's changed from the first four games to the last four?
The defense has not been as stout.
In their first four games the Vikings outscored their opponents 90 to 72. In the last four games it's been even, 94 to 95 points. The offense has been consistent all season scoring an average of 23 points per game, but the defense has given up almost six points more per game over the last four games—from an average of 18 points to 24 points.
The offense has not been on the field as long.
Over the first four games the Vikings time of possession averaged 29:32. From Weeks 5-8, it's dropped by a minute and a half. While it doesn't seem like much, that's shifting away from the direction the Vikings need to be going. All season long the defense has been on the field more than the offense.
The offense has not been able to sustain a time-consuming drive.
Tied into the time of possession are the number of time-consuming drives. Splitting the season into quarters, the Vikings offense had 16 scoring drives the first four games and 17 in the last four weeks.
In the first four games, the offense had three scoring drives that lasted longer than seven minutes, and six that took at least five minutes off the clock. Those numbers drop dramatically over the last four games, with no scoring drive lasting seven minutes, and only four that last five minutes.
Christian Ponder has not been the same effective quarterback.
As we approach Halloween, it seems that Christian Ponder is practicing his best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impersonation.
Through the first four games he had thrown 123 passes without an interception, completing 68.3 percent of his passes with four touchdowns. His quarterback rating was an impressive 97.7. Heading into the Washington game in Week 6, he was second in the NFL in completion percentage behind Griffin III.
While in his last four games he's thrown six touchdowns, he also has seven interceptions. His rating in those games is 75.2—dropping his passer passer rating to 85.8 for the season.
To put his performance in perspective, Donovan McNabb had an 82.9 when Ponder replaced him after six games last season. McNabb had thrown four touchdowns and only two interceptions. Working in Ponder's favor this season, is the fact that there is no one waiting to be the franchise quarterback. Short of an injury, there's little chance quarterbacks Joe Webb or McLeod Bethel-Thompson will see much playing time.
One negative on the horizon. Ponder will face his third rookie quarterback of the season when the Vikings travel to Seattle. He is 0-2 so far this season when facing first-year signal-callers.
When the Vikings lose the turnover battle, they lose the game.
When the Vikings opened the season 3-1, they were not giving up the football. They were plus-two in turnovers and had only four fumbles. They won the turnover battle in every game, except in the loss to the Colts, when Ponder lost a fumble.
Over the last four games the Vikings have a total of 10 turnovers on seven interceptions and three lost fumbles—a minus-five in turnover ratio.
In their three losses this season the Vikings lost the turnover battle every time, resulting in a six-turnover deficit. In their five wins they are only a plus-two in turnovers.
These trends indicate that if the Vikings are going to be successful over the second half of the season, they will need to hang on the ball, put together some long scoring drives and keep the defense on the sidelines.