The Minnesota Vikings host the Green Bay Packers this Sunday with the fate of their 2012 season on the line. Win and they're in the playoffs, lose and, barring a string of other teams also losing, their offseason begins on Monday morning.
If only the path to a successful 2013 was only so clear.
The 2012 version of the Vikings got on the back of Adrian Peterson and simply ran over and around enough opponents to far exceed any rational expectations that were set for them before the season.
The offense was one-dimensional, but that one dimension was so good, so valuable, that the Vikings were able to outscore most of their opponents. The defense took remarkable steps forward from the dismal 2011 season that saw it as one of the worst units in the league.
The third unit, the special teams, had one of, if not the very best season in Vikings history. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh was a draft-day steal that constantly shortened the field for the offense and lengthened it for the defense.
Leslie Frazier and his staff have done a fantastic job with the X-factor on this football team. The dedication and attitude on the 2012 Vikings has never wavered during a season that's provided many opportunities to do so. Simply put, there aren't any bad apples on this team, and that's a credit to the coaching staff and the leaders on the team.
When Adrian Peterson is the hardest working player on your team and has the most positive attitude on your team, the rest of the roster will follow.
As positive as the 2012 campaign has been, there are obviously still holes to fill on the roster. An offense that has two of the most dynamic players in the league shouldn't be so one dimensional. The defense, shall we say, is very ripe in some areas and is in need of a boost of youthful talent.
Here we offer some offseason plans that will hopefully make the Vikings a solid playoff team in 2013 with a chance to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Is Percy Harvin an injury-prone troublemaker?
If so, is he worth the risk of signing on for the large contract he has coming to him?
This is one of the biggest decisions GM Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier will have to tackle this offseason. Through nine games, Harvin was having his best season as a pro and was a viable MVP candidate.
Harvin left the field against Seattle on November 4th with what was described at the time as a severe ankle sprain. Misinformation swirled around Harvin for the next several weeks as it seemed like nobody had a real good handle on the severity of the injury.
Ultimately, Harvin was put on IR, shelving him for the season and putting his future with the Vikings into doubt. Had the Vikings simply had enough of Harvin's attitude, or was it simply that the ankle injury was a severe one that wasn't going to heal in a month? Or was it both?
The bottom line is that Percy Harvin is a fantastic football player, and the Vikings are better off having him than not. There has been much talk of trading Harvin, but it's no secret that he's due a lot of money and that he can be a bit more than a headache. That adds up to his trade value being far less than what one would think by looking at his production.
After exploring all of their options with Harvin, the Vikings will come to find that they are best served to pay him and keep him in the fold. Fantasies of trading him and a pick for the likes of Larry Fitzgerald are far-fetched but certainly worth a phone call. In the end, the Vikings have a unique talent in Harvin, one of the best overall players in the game.
He can be volatile both on and off the field, but he's certainly an asset to winning football games. He does seem to have a little growing up to do, but Frazier has proved to be a steady hand.
If the Vikings decide to part ways with Harvin, the guess is that they'll only get 75 cents on the dollar, and it would be a decision that they would come to regret.
Considering the state of the Vikings wide receiver corps, keeping Harvin on the roster would cure more headaches than it would cause.
The Percy Harvin quandary is just the beginning for the Vikings when it comes to the wide receiver position.
Vikings analysts have been hashing out the chicken or the egg dilemma when it comes to quarterback Christian Ponder and his rag-tag group of receivers all season long. The truth is the Vikings need vast improvement at both positions.
The Vikings made a risk-free move last offseason when they signed Jerome Simpson, a free agent who was coming off of a solid year with the Cincinnati Bengals. Fast and athletic, Simpson seemed like a perfect complement to put out wide with Harvin in the slot.
For a lot of different reasons, it didn't work. Having said that, the Vikings should re-sign Simpson to another one-year, prove-it contract. He won't cost them much, and he's shown enough talent that he's worth keeping around to see if he can blossom. They should keep him for the same reasons they kept Devin Aromashodu after 2011: They don't really know what they have with him yet.
Simpson was hurt for most of 2012 and didn't contribute nearly as much as the Vikings had hoped. He still has the speed and athleticism the Vikings need outside and would be worth bringing back for another season.
Minnesota took two wideouts in last year's draft and didn't get as much return as it had hoped. Jarius Wright has played well for the last quarter of the season and will clearly be a bigger part of the plans in 2013. The team had high hopes for Greg Childs, but he hurt both knees in training camp and his future is unsure.
The free-agent crop at receiver isn't deep, so they'll be expensive. The Vikings will have to decide if signing Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings or Mike Wallace would be worth it. If they feel like Christian Ponder's growth is being slowed down by a lack of receivers, they may want to spend a lot of money on upgrading.
Adrian Peterson's historic season aside, the Minnesota Vikings need more help along the offensive line. Although Brandon Fusco has shown improvement as the season has gone on, Charlie Johnson is average at best on the left side of the line.
There are a couple of blue-chip prospects available in the draft, but the Vikings surge for the playoffs might have them picking too low to get either one of them.
The Vikings will have to decide if it's worth dipping into the free-agent pool to pay for a big upgrade at guard. Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills is just 27 years old and would give the Vikings one of the best left sides in all of football.
If Levitre proved to be too expensive, they could make a play for Louis Vasquez of the San Diego Chargers. Vasquez is from the same 2009 draft class as Levitre, and both started as rookies. Levitre is the better player, but Vasquez would certainly be a big upgrade for the Vikings.
There are certainly decisions to be made by the Vikings front office. The way the roster stacks up now, it makes sense to spend some money on at least one big free agent, whether it be on a wideout or an upgrade at guard.
If the Vikings pass on the free-agent guard class, they'll more than likely grab one in the first four rounds of the draft.
The Minnesota Vikings and GM Rick Spielman knocked it out of the park in the 2012 NFL draft.
In Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Blair Walsh they found players who will make the Pro Bowl for years to come. Josh Robinson, Rhett Ellison and Jarius Wright have come up with big plays when called upon and will be a part of the franchise for years to come.
Greg Childs went down with injury, and Audie Cole spent the season on the practice squad, but both will be given every opportunity to become contributors in 2013.
That group, along with Christian Ponder, Kyle Rudolph, Chris Cook and a few others are major parts of the Vikings' success now and in the future.
In Kalil and Smith the Vikings found keystones for both the offense and defense for years to come. With successful rookie seasons under their belt, Kalil and Smith will be ready to take on leadership roles come season two. Both have more than proved themselves on the field, and they each carry themselves like leaders off the field.
The Vikings will enter 2013 with a great balance of veteran stars and young studs. In Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson, Kevin Williams and Chad Greenway, the Vikings are led by guys who do things the right way and provide great examples to the young guys on how to carry themselves as professional football players.
What more can you ask for from your head coach?
Leslie Frazier has weathered every storm that's come his way. And let's be honest, there have been a lot of them. For Frazier to take last year's 3-13 club and get them to the verge of a playoff berth, he should be rewarded.
In a volatile league where egos need to be massaged and young players need to be boosted constantly, Frazier has struck the right chord with this Vikings team and has them all on the same page.
Whatever Frazier is selling, his team is obviously buying into it, and the chemistry on the Vikings is at a high-water mark for the last decade.
Frazier has been given ample opportunity to blow a gasket over the last couple of seasons, but that's not his way. Many have been critical of his always calm demeanor, but the proof is in the pudding as Frazier has not only guided a massive turnaround, but kept the team attitude always positive and kept any complaining in-house.
Ultimately, contract extensions can be meaningless in professional sports, but with the Vikings on the precipice of much better days, it would give a signal to the entire organization that the owners are also buying into the Frazier regime, and that stability is important from top to bottom.
Now about that quarterback...
Six slides in and it's high time to address the elephant in the room when it comes to the future success of the Minnesota Vikings.
For every Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III who comes along to the NFL, there are countless numbers of first-round quarterback flops. While Christian Ponder will never be in the class of Luck or RGIII, it's still too early to write him off as a flop.
He didn't show nearly enough in 2012 to make anyone think he's a viable long-term answer for the Vikings at quarterback. He's had moments where he's looked good, but not nearly enough of them.
The Vikings have made it pretty clear that they are heading into the 2013 with Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback. Ponder will be given every opportunity to show that he is indeed a viable option, and that the team can have success with him behind center.
What the Vikings will have to do differently in 2013 is bench Ponder if he's not performing. The Vikings arguably lost two winnable games in 2012 because they refused to give Ponder the hook in games where he was playing terribly.
Whether the coaching staff felt like Ponder could turn it around during the game, or that pulling him would do too much damage to him long term, they can no longer treat him with kid gloves.
If the 2012 season has done anything at all, it's proved that the Vikings are not as far away from being legitimate contenders as anyone thought they were entering the season. The Vikings will be too good of a football team in 2013 to be weighed down by their quarterback.
If Joe Webb isn't good enough to come off the bench a provide a spark, they need to find someone who is. McLeod Bethel-Thompson made the roster in 2012 because he showed enough raw ability that he might one day be an option. His learning curve needs to be accelerated regardless of Ponder's progress.
Much has been said of Ponder being an able "game manager." That's not good enough. The Vikings took him with the 12th overall pick, he needs to show that he can run the offense they want to run. The Vikings, in turn, need to give Ponder some weapons that's he's not afraid to throw to.
The Vikings were rebuilding heading into 2012, whether or not that was the company line or not, it's just a fact when you're coming off of a 3-13 season.
GM Rick Spielman's four-star draft went a long way in shrinking the rebuilding process. Heading into 2013, it won't be so much a rebuild as an add-on.
Wide receiver is priority one in the draft, but if the Vikings are able to fill a void on the offensive or defensive lines with their first pick, it would make sense, as there will be plenty of receivers available in the second and third rounds.
More depth is needed in the secondary and at linebacker as well.
After getting a defensive tackle and a wideout, the Vikings will have the luxury of picking the best players available to fill in holes on their roster.
Obviously, much of what they do in the draft will hinge on any moves they make in free agency. If they go out and sign Dwayne Bowe, then they could stay away from receivers in the draft until the later rounds.
If Spielman and the player personnel staff can match the work they did in 2012, the Vikings will be that much closer to being real contenders for the Lombardi Trophy.