Minnesota Vikings fans have to keep telling themselves that the Vikings are an improved team. After all they have doubled their win total from last season, are two games better than the last-place Lions and are nowhere near being in contention for the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
Yes, the Vikings are better than last season, but at the same time, they are still at least a year away from making the playoffs.
If they keep repeating this mantra, then Sunday's 28-10 loss to the Bears in Chicago becomes a meaningless game. This is a team that is still in the rebuilding process and a long way from becoming relevant in the postseason picture.
After starting the season 4-1, with back-to-back wins over two playoff teams from last season, people were starting to throw around the "P" word—playoffs.
The truth is the Vikings have to improve in a number of areas in order to take the next step and contend for the postseason. Here are several of the most crucial areas they need to address.
The Vikings need to improve on the road. In order to make the playoffs, a team needs to be able to win on the road. Since Leslie Frazier took over in Week 12 of the 2010 season the Vikings are 5-11 on the road. This season they are only 1-4 away from the Metrodome.
For the 12 teams that made the playoffs last season, all but two of them finished better than .500 on the road. They had a combined record of 62-34 on the road—a 64.5 winning percentage.
The Vikings don't have the passing game to win in the postseason. While the Vikings have one of the best running games in the NFL with Adrian Peterson leading the way, they need a more effective passing game to balance their offensive attack. With Christian Ponder at quarterback, Minnesota is averaging only 186.2 yards per game passing this season. Only two teams that made the playoffs last season averaged less than that.
Surprisingly, in the playoffs, the average passing yards per team increased from 254.0 yards per game during the regular season to 263.5 in the playoffs.
The problem isn't all on Ponder. The Vikings' receiving corp is terrible. There has been plenty of criticism directed at Ponder for the lack of a deep passing game, but the problem is the Vikings do not have a prototypical No. 1 receiver.
Percy Harvin is the Vikings' most dangerous and versatile offensive weapon, but he alone is not enough. After missing the last two games with an ankle injury, Harvin still leads the Vikings with 62 receptions. The next closest player is tight end Kyle Rudolph with 39.
The Vikings need a game-changer on defense. There's the oft-used phrase that defense wins championships. That being said, the Vikings currently do not have a defense worthy of winning a championship. A defense that once prided themselves on their ability to stop the run is currently ranked 15th in the NFL, yielding an average of 111.7 yards per game.
The Vikings lack that one defender that opposing teams need to scheme for in their game plans. Sure, they have defensive end Jared Allen who had a tremendous season last year, setting the Vikings' single-season record with 22 sacks. That still wasn't enough to lift the defense any higher than 21st in yards allowed. Through 11 games this year Allen only has seven sacks—a huge drop-off from last season.
The Vikings also have cornerback Antoine Winfield. While he is still a solid defender and sure tackler, age and gravity are starting to take their toll, and he is quickly becoming a part-time player. No longer is he someone that is going to make an offense shy away from throwing in his direction. On Sunday, Jay Cutler targeted Brandon Marshall 17 times, completing 12 passes for 92 yards—often with Winfield covering him.
The coaching staff needs to get better at making in-game adjustments. The Vikings have only one win this season when trailing at halftime. That was the overtime win at home against the Jaguars in Week 1 when they needed a 55-yard field goal from Blair Walsh late in the game to tie the game and force overtime.
That's still an improvement over last season. The Vikings lost five games in 2011 when they went into the locker room with a halftime lead.
Along with making halftime adjustments, the coaching staff needs to make better decisions all around. Early in the fourth quarter against the Bears, the Vikings were facing a 3rd-and-2 from Chicago's eight-yard line. Instead of handing the ball of to Adrian Peterson, the offense instead went with a pass play.
After an incomplete pass made it fourth down, the Vikings decided to go for it—a move I applaud, especially since they were down 28-10 at the time. What I don't agree with is another pass play that resulted in no points, and Chicago with the ball.
Christian Ponder has not consistently shown the ability to lead the Vikings to victory. Christian Ponder has an 8-13 record as a starter. And while he has improved his record to 6-5 this season, he has not played as well as the record may indicate. In three of the six wins he has failed to pass for 200 yards. In the game against the Cardinals, a 21-14 victory, he completed only eight of 17 passes for a measly 58 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. His passer rating for the games was a low 35.5.
How far will Christian Ponder take the Vikings in his career?
On the season Ponder has only truly led the Vikings to victory in three games—against Jacksonville in Week 1, the 49ers in Week 3 and the Lions at home in Week 10. In those three games he did not throw an interception and finished with a combined passer rating of 104.4.
In order to make the playoffs and contend for the Super Bowl, Ponder needs to raise his level of play. Over the last 10 seasons only two quarterbacks won the Super Bowl with a passer rating lower than Ponder's 80.2 that he has this season. In both of those cases, 2007 Giants and 2008 Steelers had very good defenses that compensated for the middling seasons of quarterbacks Eli Manning (73.9) and Ben Roethlisberger (80.1).
Yes, the Vikings are an improved team over last season, but it doesn't much to improve upon a 3-13 season. And it will take a lot more to become a playoff contender.