The Minnesota Vikings are currently one of four NFC teams who sit at 6-4 with six games to play in the 2012 NFL season. With four of those final six games against division rivals Chicago and Green Bay, the Vikings are firmly in control of their own destiny in regard to winning the NFC North and making the playoffs.
In reality, the Vikings may be underdogs in all six of their remaining games, but the mindset at Winter Park has to be, "Why not us?" There are certainly no unbeatable teams in the NFL this year, and if the Vikings follow the old cliche of "one game at a time," their goal of reaching the playoffs certainly isn't an absurd one.
It's been a wildly inconsistent season for the Vikings through 10 games, but that statement would apply to about 27 of the league's 32 teams.
At their best this season, the Vikings have looked like a playoff team. With two of the best weapons in the league on their side, the Vikings offense has had to ride the ups and downs that come with a second-year quarterback.
On defense, Minnesota has been all over the map, playing five very good games and five pretty poor ones.
The Vikings will be coming off their bye week heading to Chicago under ideal conditions. Minnesota will be rested and ready and the Chicago Bears are coming off a short week and quarterback Jay Cutler remains a question mark.
As the Vikings begin a two-game stretch where they would love to steal a game at either Chicago or Green Bay, we take a look at a handful of players who will play crucial roles down the home stretch of the 2012 season.
There's really nowhere else to start when dissecting the Vikings' chances for the rest of the 2012 season.
While the Vikings offense may have MVP candidate Adrian Peterson and perhaps the most versatile offensive weapon in the league in Percy Harvin, their fate remains more closely tied to the up-and-down play of quarterback Christian Ponder.
Such is the state of the NFL in 2012; your offense is really only as good as your quarterback play.
Ponder had one of his better games as a pro his last time out against the Detroit Lions. Without Percy Harvin available, Ponder completed 24 passes to 10 different receivers and looked poised and confident in doing so.
It was a game he had to have, as his previous three outings had him perilously close to the quarterback cliff that has claimed a dozen or so other first-round quarterback flops over the last decade. Quite simply, Ponder had been playing awful, and his regression had threatened to torpedo what had been a pleasantly surprising season.
Five of the Vikings' final six games are against run defenses ranked in the top 11 in the league. We've all learned to never bet against Adrian Peterson, but the odds of him continuing to pile up huge numbers against stout defenses is...well, actually, it's probably pretty good; he's Adrian Peterson. Point being that there will be more of an onus on Ponder to play well for the Vikings to have success.
The hope for Ponder is that playing a game without Harvin has opened up his eyes a bit. Defenses had figured out that if they could take away Harvin, the Vikings pass offense was lifeless. Without Harvin, Ponder was forced to survey the field and pick who was open on a particular play.
The other receivers certainly won't be less open with Harvin in the mix.
Whether the Vikings make the playoffs or not, the next six games are very important for Ponder. He has to show a level of consistency that he hasn't of yet in his career. He has to protect the football, and he has to complete the simple passes that will give the Vikings better down and distance numbers.
The Vikings' final six games present a huge challenge. We'll know a heck of a lot more about Christian Ponder on New Year's Eve than we do today.
As awesome as it is to watch Adrian Peterson do his thing, the truth is the Vikings are just 7-6 over the last three seasons in games which Peterson has gained over 100 yards rushing.
Does that diminish Peterson's importance? Absolutely not. Peterson was the only thing that kept the Vikings offense in the game in losses to Seattle and Tampa Bay, and he was the main offensive cog in wins over Detroit and Arizona.
For the Vikings to be successful over the last six games of 2012, Adrian Peterson has to be his usual self. Even that might not be enough, but without Peterson playing at a high level, Minnesota has no shot.
It's hard for anyone to comprehend, but Peterson is having his best season as a pro on the heels of complete reconstructive knee surgery. The guy is an absolute physical freak of nature, and he only seems to be getting stronger and better as the year wears on.
Peterson is cutting and juking as well as he ever has, and his insane level of rehabilitation seems to have him even stronger than before when taking on tacklers. He's running with a little more patience than ever before too, letting holes open before bursting threw them.
The going is only going to get tougher for Peterson as he goes up against the Bears, with the second-best run defense, twice and the Texans, who have the third best run defense. Of course, the Seahawks had a top-five run defense at the time, and Peterson went for 182 yards and two touchdowns against them.
Again, Peterson running wild won't guarantee the Vikings any wins, but if Peterson should happen to be contained, the Vikings' road will be nearly impossible.
Jared Allen continues to be the heart and soul of the Minnesota Vikings defense.
It's almost a given that Chad Greenway is going to get his 10 to 15 tackles a game, and you can be pretty sure that Antoine Winfield will impact the game one way or another.
For the Vikings defense, however, a better barometer of how they're doing is the impact being made by Allen, their Tasmanian devil of a defensive end.
When Allen is playing well and impacting the game, the Vikings always seem to fare better. With five games against Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub, getting to the quarterback will be paramount to the success of the Vikings defense.
When Allen is wrecking havoc, it always seems to open things up for the rest of the defense. The lanes to the quarterback are shorter and less crowded for the rest of the linemen. The guys in coverage don't have to stay with their assignments for quite as long.
Jared Allen always brings his best effort to the table, but the Vikings' chances the rest of the way will be greatly increased if Allen steps his play up a notch. The Vikings need at least a sack a game out of Allen, and the more he gets, the better his team's chances are.
Harrison Smith doesn't have the luxury of playing like a rookie if the Vikings are to make a playoff push in 2012.
Smith has had his share of first-year mistakes but has still been a huge upgrade for the Vikings on the back end. He's a hitter who brings some attitude that the Vikings secondary has lacked for a few seasons. Smith has a swagger and plays with a chip on his shoulder that the Vikings will definitely need in four games against the Bears and the Packers.
Smith, as expected, has been a very quick study and learned to adjust to the speed of the NFL in a short time. He's learned that he has to react to routes a lot quicker at this level than in college. Smith has been very good against the run all season, and he's getting better each week against the pass.
The road gets no easier for the Vikings rookie as Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson and the Packers' bevy of talented receivers fill up the rest of Minnesota's schedule.
The Vikings moved up in the draft to get Harrison Smith because they knew they were getting a leader and a very smart football player. If the Vikings are to stay in the playoff hunt this year, Smith will need to be the key cog in the secondary. Strong against the run and improving quickly against the pass, Smith will be at the forefront of many playoff teams to come.
We'll see if 2012 can be one of them.
Kyle Rudolph had seven catches for 65 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. He had two catches for 17 yards and no touchdowns in the three games before that.
It's pretty simple to figure out which Kyle Rudolph the Vikings will need down the stretch if they want to have any chance of playing in the postseason.
John Carlson had three very productive seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. After signing a large free-agent deal with the Vikings, he has four catches for 19 yards and no touchdowns in 10 games. Carlson doesn't have to be huge for the Vikings to win down the stretch, but he's certainly got to show up.
Rudolph is still very young and didn't play on super prolific passing teams at Notre Dame, so he's still learning some of the nuances of football at the highest level. How to get open, how to run routes and how to read defenses and his own quarterback.
Carlson has battled injuries for most of the season but is healthy now, and some productivity out of him would certainly help. Christian Ponder needs as many options as possible, and with no vertical game to speak of, having both Rudolph and Carlson pitching in would greatly improve the Vikings' chances.
Percy Harvin is one of the most versatile, electric playmakers in the NFL.
Harvin missed the Vikings' last game against the Lions with a severe ankle sprain, and in the end, the two weeks off for Harvin might turn out to be the best thing to happen for both him and the team.
Harvin plays with a reckless abandon that takes its toll on his body. He always jumps right up and is always accountable on Sundays, but there's just no way his body can't be grateful for the break, even if it kills Harvin to watch.
Harvin's ankle is still pretty sore, and the Vikings would do well to make sure it's 100 percent before letting him back on the field.
Harvin is a threat to score every time he gets his hands on the football. He can impact games like few other players in the league. As a kick returner, Harvin is always a threat to break off a big gain and set up the offense with a short field. As a receiver and runner, defenses have to constantly worry about where he is and how they can account for him.
If the Vikings want to finish off the last six games successfully, they'll need a healthy Percy Harvin impacting the games.
The Minnesota Vikings interior defense is decent. Not great, but not terrible either.
They're very good at getting to the quarterback but can certainly be gauged by the run. If we know one thing about the Viking's linebackers it's that Chad Greenway is very good. Coming down the stretch, the Vikings are going to need Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson to be very good too.
Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Stephen Jackson and a coming-on James Starks are all on the Vikings' schedule the rest of the way, not to mention some quarterbacks who know how to kill you with dink-and-dunk throws and runs the longer a play drags out.
The Vikings will need Brinkley and Henderson to make plays. Cause a couple of fumbles. Break up a pass here or there. Get the Vikings defense off the field on a few 3rd-and-shorts and a lot of 3rd-and-longs.
Turnovers are always important in the NFL, but they seem to go up in value come late November and December. Among the Vikings linebackers, Greenway is a given. Brinkley and Henderson remain question marks, and they'll need them both to play big over the next six games if they want to play any games in January.