7 Things to Watch for in the Minnesota Vikings' Final 6 Games
What a difference one win can do for a fan base. Heading into Week 10, the Minnesota Vikings were looking more like the version from 2011 that finished 3-13 than a team that had any playoff aspirations. After a 4-1 start the Vikings had lost three of their last four games. There were calls to bench Christian Ponder and start just about anyone else.
Their signature win against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3, a 24-13 victory that saw the Vikings sustain three touchdown drives of over 80 yards, seemed like a fluke. It was more like an off-week for the 49ers than a statement that the Minnesota was ready to compete for a playoff spot.
After completing the season sweep of the Detroit Lions with a 34-24 win at the Metrodome, people are talking about playoffs again. Why not? At 6-4, the Vikings are one of only eight teams in the NFC with a winning record heading into Week 11.
The problem is that two of those teams are currently ahead of the Vikings—the Packers at 6-3 and the Bears at 7-2. With four of their final six games against these two teams, the Vikings control their fate.
In order to make the playoffs, the Vikings will need to win at least half of their remaining games—a tough task with St. Louis and Houston left on their schedule along with the Packers and Bears. It's entirely possible the Vikings will be underdogs in each of their final six games.
Even if the Vikings were not to win another game—and fulfill the record I projected at the beginning of the season—they are still a better team than last season.
Here are some things to watch for in the final six games.
Jarius Wright and Percy Harvin Together on the Field
Finally, after being inactive for the Vikings' first nine games of his rookie season, Jarius Wright made his NFL debut in Week 10 against the Detroit Lions. It took an ankle injury to Percy Harvin, putting him on the sideline for Wright to get on the field.
Wright, one of the Vikings' fourth-round draft picks, had been a healthy scratch for the Vikings for most of the season after suffering an ankle injury of his own in the final preseason game.
For a team in need of help at wide receiver, it would seem like a good fit to add another speedy receiver to the lineup. If Wright could maintain three catches per game, it would be better than that for Adrian Peterson (2.9), Michael Jenkins (2.8), Jerome Simpson (1.8) or Devin Aromashodu (1.2).
As Judd Zulgad reported on 1500espn.com, Wright's contribution in the Vikings' win over the Lions doesn't mean he has secured a spot in the Vikings' offense:
"It will always be week-to-week with some guys," Frazier said when asked about Wright and the decision-making process of whether he would play. "It probably won't be any different with Jarius. We'll take a look at him every week and determine if this is a week he's going to be up. He definitely did some things to warrant considering him every week going forward."
The biggest problem is that he is listed on the depth chart as Harvin's backup. The Vikings could really use another wide receiver with the capability of catching at least three passes a game. Currently only Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph are averaging greater than that.
Don't expect to see much of Wright as the season winds down.
Can the Defense Step It Up as the Competition Gets Tougher?
Against the Lions, the Vikings' defense came up with its fifth interception of the season. That puts them on a pace to finish with eight for the year—the exact same total they had last season when they ranked last in the NFL in interceptions.
The Vikings defense has improved over last year. They are currently ranked 13th in the league in yards allowed—up from 21st, where they finished last season. Unfortunately, the Vikings are ranked 30th in the NFL with their five interceptions. On the positive side, as a team, the Vikings are only five sacks off the lead for sacks in the NFL.
In the four previous games before holding the Lions to 60 rushing yards, the Vikings had given up an average of 165.8 yards per game. The defense will need to be a whole lot better as they will be facing the likes of Matt Forte, Steven Jackson and Arian Foster to close out the season.
Kyle Rudolph Is Back in the Offense
After catching only two passes in the three games leading up to the Detroit game in Week 10, Kyle Rudolph finished with seven catches against the Lions—his highest single-game total of the season. He also caught his team-leading sixth touchdown pass of the season.
If the Vikings are going to make a push for the playoffs, Rudolph needs to have this type of game week in and week out, especially with the return of Percy Harvin to the offense.
It will be nearly impossible for Rudolph to catch anywhere near seven passes per game with top-10 passing defenses in Chicago and Houston on the schedule.
Still, by the end of the season, look for Rudolph to lead the Vikings with 10 touchdown passes.
Will Christian Ponder "Win" Another Game
With Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph as weapons, Christian Ponder really doesn't have to win the games for the Vikings—he just needs to not lose them. That means being careful with the football and avoiding interceptions.
In the first four games of the season Ponder had completed 68.9 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and two interceptions and a passer rating of 95.5. The Vikings looked like a very different team from last year.
In the next four games, his performance suffered and along with it the Vikings' fortunes.
His completion percentage dropped to 57.9 percent, with four touchdowns and six interceptions—the Vikings went 1-3 in those games.
Ponder looked like the quarterback from the first four games games against the Lions, completing 24 of 32 passes with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
That last stat will be key for Ponder and the Vikings. This season the Vikings have lost every game when they also lost the turnover battle. The Bears lead the NFL with 19 interceptions heading into Week 11, and the Texans are fourth with nine. It will be key for Ponder to make wise choices with the football.
How Effective Will Percy Harvin Be Upon His Return?
At one point this season, Percy Harvin was leading the NFL in all-purpose yards and the NFC in receptions.
After missing last week's game, he has dropped to third in the NFC and fifth in the NFL with 62 catches. He has dropped to second in the NFL in all-purpose yards behind Randall Cobb of the Packers.
The key to Harvin's success remains his ability to stay healthy and on the field come Sunday. After missing three games in his first two seasons due to migraines, last week's game was the first he missed over the last two seasons.
The Vikings need to continue to employ Harvin in all aspects of the game—returning kicks, running with ball out of the backfield and catching the ball.
Averaging almost seven catches per game, the Vikings will need to have that kind of performance every week, starting in Chicago, throughout the rest of the season, to pull off an upset or two.
With one kickoff return for a touchdown on the season, look for Harvin to add another before the season is over.
Adrian Peterson's Monster Year
There are not enough superlatives to describe the kind of year Adrian Peterson is having. No matter which one you select, it doesn't do justice what Peterson has achieved this season.
He currently leads the NFL with 1,128 rushing yards, with an average of 112.8 yards per game. On pace for 1,800 yards, it would surpass his previous single-season high of 1,760 yards from 2008, when he last led the NFL in rushing.
In each of his last three games, he's had one run of at least 61 yards, and his average of 5.8 yards per carry is the best in his six seasons in the NFL.
If the Vikings' defense doesn't hold the opposition in check at least a little bit, Minnesota may be forced to go to the pass to play catch up, taking away carries from Peterson.
With some tough rushing defenses in Chicago, Green Bay and Houston, look for Peterson to fall a bit short of 1,800 yards.
Still, it takes away nothing from one of the NFL's leading MVP candidates.
Blair Walsh Is on a Pace to Tie the NFL Rookie Scoring Record
If not for the incredible season Adrian Peterson is having, rookie kicker Blair Walsh might be the biggest story for the Minnesota Vikings.
Minnesota jettisoned veteran kicker Ryan Longwell, who, after six years with the Vikings, is third in team history in scoring with 633 points.
All Walsh has done is hit 23 of 24 field goals, including all five from greater than 50 yards. His 90 points are currently fourth best in the NFL. He is on pace to match Kevin Butler's 144 points in 1985 as the most scored by a rookie. If he surpasses that mark and can score 145 or more points, it would put him among the top 25 scoring seasons in the NFL.
Not bad for a kid who only converted 73.8 percent of his field goals in college.