Surveying the Home Stretch: What the Vikings Must Do to Earn a Playoff Berth

Mike Nelson@Mike_E_NelsonCorrespondent INovember 1, 2012

Surveying the Home Stretch: What the Vikings Must Do to Earn a Playoff Berth

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    If the season ended today, the Minnesota Vikings would be in the postseason at 5-3. They would be one of the NFC's two wild-card teams along with the Green Bay Packers.

    But while the Vikings would be playoff-bound today, if they continue to play the way they have for the past three weeks, they won't be.

    The Vikings have become turnover-prone, mostly because of poor quarterbacking, but they've also shown no ability to stop the run—a staple in Minnesota teams since 2006.

    And then there's the second-half schedule. It's brutal. Minnesota plays half of its games against playoff teams from last season and has a game at Seattle and two against the Chicago Bears (the NFC's second-best team at this point).

    If the Vikings continue to play the way they have (turnover-prone, unable to protect the QB, unable to stop the run, inconsistent passing attack), then they won't make the playoffs.

    These are my seven keys to Minnesota making the postseason. One not included: luck (it can't hurt).

Continue to Feed Percy Harvin the Football

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    With the ball in his hands Percy Harvin is the most dangerous wide receiver in football. That's not open for debate. It's a fact.

    Harvin is the leader in yards after catch (427 yards) and leads New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker by 49 yards.

    He is the best combination of size and speed at the wide receiver position in the game today.

    What Minnesota did so well early in the season and against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he got seven passes for 90 yards with a touchdown, was get Harvin the ball by any means necessary.

    The go-to play was to fling him the ball wide on the line of scrimmage and let him beat his defender. Harvin will gain yards on nine of 10 defensive backs in that situation. He's an amazing talent, and he's extremely confident.

    He's having his best season with 60 receptions for 667 yards and three touchdowns. He's on pace for 120 catches for 1,334 yards and six touchdowns, all of which would be career highs.

    Harvin has led Minnesota in receiving yards in all games this season but one. He is the Vikings' receiving corps, especially with tight end Kyle Rudolph going silent in recent weeks.

    By any means necessary, that must be Minnesota's mentality with Harvin. It's a recipe for success.

Successfully Replace Cornerback Chris Cook

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    Time to put up or shut up.

    I wrote a piece stating the Minnesota Vikings could overcome injuries to Chris Cook or Antoine Winfield this season (although the scenario is different now than it was then). Well, the former is likely out for the remainder of the regular season with a broken right arm, according to 1500 ESPN.

    In losing Cook the Vikings lost their best man-to-man corner.

    Rookie Josh Robinson is expected to replace Cook in the starting lineup, and he's got big shoes to fill (literally and figuratively).

    Robinson can't do what Cook does. He can't go blow for blow with the game's biggest receivers. He, at 5'10" and 199 pounds, can't compete with Cook (6'2" and 212 pounds) on a physical level.

    But he's quicker and has better hands than Cook. Robinson is a stout corner who isn't afraid to get physical.

    I've liked Robinson in what I've seen of him on nickel and dime packages. He can't replicate Cook, but he can fill the void. He'll just do it in his own way.

    If he can't, then Minnesota will be in trouble.

    Robinson's promotion means more minutes for A.J. Jefferson and Marcus Sherels. Jefferson has gradually accumulated more minutes as the season has progressed, but Sherels hasn't as much, primarily focusing on punt returns.

    The safeties will have to step their game up to ease the transition for the corners.

Defense Must Stop the Run

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    The one thing the Minnesota defense could count on over the last five-plus years was that it would stop the run.

    The Vikings were in the top 11 against the run the past six seasons. Although the unit isn't exactly the same during that run as it is now, many of the same pieces are still in place.

    And the unit showed the capability to do so in the first five games. It allowed 393 yards over that stretch (78.6 yards per game). Since then it has allowed 468 yards in three games (156 YPG and dropped the unit to 19th against the run (107.6 YPG).

    In their defense, they did allow 183 to Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. Since the turn of the century Minnesota has been horrible against scrambling quarterbacks, and of the 183 allowed to Washington, 138 were by Griffin.

    The burden is on the linebackers to put themselves in positions to make plays.

    The play of the linebackers has really regressed since the 4-1 start. Jasper Brinkley has been limited and after posting consecutive 10-plus-tackle efforts to start the season. Erin Henderson hasn't recorded over four tackles since returning from a concussion.

    The defensive tackles, Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion, have to get stronger. Far too many runs up the middle have gone for five yards. That's unacceptable, especially since neither player is known as a pass-rusher.

Christian Ponder Must Step His Game Up

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    Maybe the biggest reason the Minnesota Vikings opened the season 4-1 was the play of Christian Ponder.

    The second-year quarterback went 143 passes without an interception and played the position intelligently. He didn't force much, made the throws that were there for him and had few mistakes.

    He looked comfortable and appeared on the way to figuring out what it takes to be an NFL quarterback.

    Fast forward to the present and he's thrown seven interceptions in the past four games, which has thrown both sides of the ball out of whack. The defense gets less rest and the offense struggles to find a rhythm.

    If Ponder continues his careless ways with the football, then the Vikings will be lucky to finish .500, let alone make the playoffs.

Offensive Must Protect Christian Ponder

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    Christian Ponder hasn't looked comfortable in the pocket for some time now. Even when he threw for 352 yards against the Washington Redskins, he was on edge.

    Part of that might be him thinking too much as his play has regressed. The other part probably has been the play of his O-line.

    During the Vikings' three-game winning streak after Week 2, the offense allowed Ponder to be sacked three times.

    In the five wins Ponder has been sacked eight times. In the three losses he's gone down 11 times. Coincidence? I think not.

    There are plenty of other factors at play, like the turnover ratio, but the increase in sacks is big.

    Charlie Johnson has struggled recently at left guard. He looked strong early but has since underwhelmed.

    Matt Kalil is starting to get a wake-up call to NFL life. He's still strong, but he's fallen off a hair too.

    John Sullivan has been, as expected, the best of the unit, with Brandon Fusco holding his own and Phil Loadholt going back and forth.

Get Kyle Rudolph Back Involved in the Offense

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    While defenses knew they needed to account for Percy Harvin to open the season, not many were worried about Kyle Rudolph on the same level.

    And while Rudolph's stats dwarf in comparison to Harvin's, he proved he is worth noting.

    He caught four touchdowns over the first four games and has caught one over the previous three.

    For the season he has 27 receptions for 242 yards and five touchdowns.

    Over the first six games he averaged just under seven targets per game. The last two he's averaged two.

    Now, defenses have made adjustments to him. They are putting more emphasis on guarding him over the middle and especially in the red zone. He's most dangerous in those two zones.

    But Minnesota hasn't made the necessary adjustments to free him up.

    Without Rudolph active in the passing game, it means Harvin is the only option. And if defenses ever find a way to effectively remove him from the game too, then the Vikings' passing game is dead.

Adrian Peterson Must Continue to Be Adrian Peterson

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    While the passing game has proven to be highly volatile, Adrian Peterson has proven he will continue to be Adrian Peterson, which means he's the best at what he does.

    Peterson has been stellar coming off of a torn ACL and MCL last December. He is the league leader in rushing yards (775) and has four touchdowns.

    His role in the aerial attack has increased too. He's caught 23 passes for 139 yards. He's on pace for career highs in receptions (46) and has already matched last year's receiving yards total.

    While he didn't look like the Peterson of old to open the season, he sure does now.

    He's rushed for 120-plus yards the past two weeks with two touchdowns, while only rushing for over 100 yards once and just two touchdowns in the first six games.

    His partner, Toby Gerhart, struggling mightily (31 rushes for 108 yards for 3.5 yards per carry and two lost fumbles), in which Peterson becomes that much more vital.

    With the inconsistencies in the passing game quite evident, Minnesota needs Peterson to remain reliable to give the defenses something to worry about.