The Minnesota Vikings begin the 2013 season Sunday afternoon in Detroit with perhaps more questions surrounding the team than ever before.
That's not to say that big things aren't expected from the Vikings this year, what it means is that nobody is really sure what to make of Leslie Frazier's club heading into the regular season.
The Las Vegas betting line on the Vikings' over/under win total is 7.5. ESPN.com has the Vikings ranked 17th out of 32 teams in their power rankings. The odds on Minnesota winning the Super Bowl are currently 40-1, the same as four other teams lumped right in the middle of the league.
Very few prognosticators see the Vikings matching their 10-win total from 2012, but nobody is predicting them to fall to the 3-13 depths of two seasons ago either.
The truth in the NFL is that there are probably two or three teams that you can be assured will win at least 10 games and two or three teams that probably won't win as many as five, and you can pretty much throw every other team into a hat when trying to predict the outcome of given season.
Injuries happen. Momentum swings happen. Young players step up and become stars. Veteran players suddenly look like they've lost a step or two. Coaches make stupid moves. Refs make bad calls. And more injuries happen.
That's just the nature of the beast heading into any NFL season, and the Vikings, like every other team, are faced with far more questions than answers as summer turns to fall.
Minnesota begins on the road this week, taking on the Detroit Lions in a game that could set an early tone in the NFC North.
So we ask: What are the biggest questions facing the Vikings in their Week 1 matchup?
The question above this slide is the one that hangs over the entire 2013 season for the Minnesota Vikings.
It’s been asked since the moment the Vikings selected Ponder with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft and one we still don’t have an answer to.
If you follow Minnesota even the tiniest bit, you’ve heard it all before: For every glimpse of talent Ponder has shown, he’s wiped it out with a bad decision or a poor throw. It’s now year three for Ponder and it’s time for some answers.
Quarterback in the NFL is the most important position in all of sports when it comes to impacting a team’s success. Now more than ever, the NFL is a passer’s league, and a team’s fortunes will rise and fall depending on the play of its signal-caller.
The Vikings are certainly a run-first team and will be again in 2013 and every year that Adrian Peterson is playing at his peak. But Minnesota got a historic season out of Peterson in 2012 and still barely made the playoffs and weren’t a legitimate contender because Ponder wasn’t good enough to make them one.
Of course the Vikings had more flaws than just Ponder. Football is the ultimate team game, but quarterback is the most important piece of any NFL team’s puzzle.
This isn’t to say that Ponder needs to be great, he doesn’t. He does, however, need to be good. The Vikings beat the Lions in Detroit last year despite the fact that Ponder threw for just 111 yards. Two kick returns for touchdowns were the difference and that’s not going to happen again.
The Lions will be the first of 16 defenses to play the Vikings, and they’ll all have the same mindset coming into the game. They’re going to try to shut down Peterson as best they can and see if Ponder has enough to beat them.
Will Ponder be a positive or a negative?
We can all guess about the fortunes of the Vikings and the Lions when it comes to the 2013 season, but the truth is, we don’t know. 8-8 is a legitimate guess for both teams and so is three or four more wins or losses for each club.
We just don’t know.
What we do know heading into Sunday’s matchup is that we’ll be watching the best running back in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, squaring off against the best wide receiver in the NFL, Calvin Johnson.
Megatron led the NFL with 122 receptions in 2012 and broke Jerry Rice’s NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards. Johnson became the first player in NFL history to record back-to-back 1,600 receiving-yard seasons.
And yet the Lions were just 4-12.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford targeted Johnson 13 times against the Vikings in Minnesota last November, and his numbers were staggering: 12 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown.
And yet the Vikings won the game 34-24. So is it really that important to shut down Johnson?
Yes and no. Similar to the Lions task of shutting down Adrian Peterson, you probably aren’t going to do it. But you try to limit the damage he can do, and you try to shut down everybody else.
For a young Vikings secondary, squaring off against Johnson in Week 1 is certainly a baptism of fire. Cornerbacks Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes will all get a taste of Johnson come Sunday and they’ll be facing a 6’5”, 240-pound athletic wonder who is clearly at the top of his trade in the NFL.
Can the Vikings shut him down? Probably not, but they can definitely beat him.
As if squaring off against Megatron wasn’t daunting enough.
The Detroit Lions have finally added an offensive piece that might perfectly complement Calvin Johnson.
And he’s certainly no stranger to Vikings fans. Reggie Bush has never quite lived up to his collegiate hype, but he’s been all world against the Vikings. As a member of the New Orleans Saints, Bush took back two punt returns for touchdowns in game against the Vikings in 2008, and he also scored a crucial touchdown in the game that won’t be mentioned.
Bush is the ideal complement to Johnson but Johnson's presence should also help Bush, since the running back has always been at his best when given some space. His addition to the Lions arsenal of weapons make this week's matchup a huge test for the Vikings cornerbacks.
Imagine being a Vikings defensive back and doing a nice job in coverage against the likes of Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew only to see Matthew Stafford dump the ball off to Bush in the flat. There are very few players in the NFL who are scarier in the open field than Bush.
What the Vikings DBs, and every other defender wearing a purple helmet will have to do, is to contain him. Force him to run to the areas where you have help. And you have to be aggressive with runners like Bush, if you hesitate, he’ll burn you.
The Vikings cornerbacks are very inexperienced, and the Lions will be the first of many teams to try to exploit that.
Minnesota fans are excited to get a look at rookie corner Xavier Rhodes on Sunday in real-game action. The first-round pick in last April's draft was selected to be an answer to the pass-happy offenses in the NFC North.
Along with Rhodes, Chris Cook has played just over a season's worth of games, and Josh Robinson is just starting his second season.
Does anyone know what Antoine Winfield is doing on Sunday?
It's pretty silly to say that a defensive end who recorded 12 sacks had a down year, but that just shows you how high the bar has been set over the course of Jared Allen's career.
Playing with a torn labrum in 2012, Allen made just 45 tackles, his lowest total since his rookie year, and although 12 is a nice sack number for just about anyone else, Allen had averaged 15.5 over the last five seasons.
Allen appears fully healthy heading into the 2013 season, and he’s opening up against a team he has terrorized over the years. Allen’s recorded 13.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and an interception in 11 games against the Lions. He’ll be facing Detroit’s new starting left tackle, second-year man Riley Reiff, after torturing Jeff Backus for years.
The 31-year old Allen is entering his 10th season in the NFL, and it’s a big one for him. Allen will make just over $14 million in the last year of his six-year deal with the Vikings. A big season in 2013 could land him another multi-year deal for pretty big money.
Allen won’t worry about his contract situation during the season, as he told Pro Football Talk in June.
The Vikings would obviously love to see another huge season out of Allen and hope that he gets things started on Sunday against a team he’s had monster games.
With six-time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams getting a little long in the tooth, the Minnesota Vikings knew they had to address the interior of their defensive line in this year’s draft.
They were delighted to see Sharrif Floyd, whom many draft experts expected to go in the top ten, fall to them with the 23rd overall choice.
Floyd was expected to spend his rookie season getting tutored by Williams at the under-tackle position, while rotating in for plenty of snaps at both defensive tackle spots. Floyd might be asked to do a little bit more on Sunday as, according to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, Williams’ status is still up in the air after suffering a hyperextended right knee against the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason.
Floyd missed a lot of time during training camp himself after having a minor knee procedure on Aug. 19.
The Vikings are hoping Williams will be able to play on Sunday, but if not, they are certainly hoping Floyd is ready for the task.
Either way, the rookie should see plenty of reps in his NFL debut, and the Vikings will get their first real look at the player they hope can one day take over for Williams.
When the Vikings beat the Lions in Detroit last season, they had seven players catch passes for a measly 111 yards.
The good news is that four of the five wide receivers on the roster at that time are now gone.
It’s been stated over and over on this site and on many others that the Vikings have had a brutal wide receiver group over the last couple of seasons.
The hope is that this is no longer the case in 2013.
The Vikings added two-time Pro Bowler Greg Jennings to take over the lead receiver spot from Percy Harvin. They drafted the uber-talented Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round, and those two will combine with Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright and Joe Webb to give the Vikings a nice blend of size and speed at receiver.
Jennings is the only proven veteran in the group, but the other four certainly have more upside than the likes of Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton.
Simpson looks to put his injury-riddled, disappointing 2012 season behind him and cash in on the potential he flashed in 2011, when he caught 50 passes for the Cincinnati Bengals. Wright could have a breakout second season after catching 22 passes in the last seven games of 2012. He’s a good route-runner and has nice hands and a high football IQ.
Patterson and Webb, though both raw, are oozing with potential. The Vikings traded back into the first round to take Patterson, a 6’2”, 220-pound flyer who can make people miss when he has the ball in his hands. Webb is finally done at quarterback and showed enough skill and determination in camp to win the fifth receiver spot.
As underwhelming as the Vikings’ quarterback play has been the last two seasons, the receivers have been just as bad. Sunday offers the beginning of a new opportunity for both.
The Minnesota Vikings finished 10-6 and made the playoffs in 2012 because Adrian Peterson put on one of the most dominating 10-game stretches the National Football League has ever seen.
The numbers for his 2012 season would make a Madden player blush: 2,097 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns, 131 yards rushing per game, 6.0 yards per carry. NFL MVP.
All of that came off of complete reconstructive surgery of his left knee. So what can he possibly do for an encore?
It should be noted that none of the other six players in NFL history who rushed for 2,000 yards in a season came remotely close to duplicating that number the next season. All of them were obviously superstars, but none were audacious enough to wonder if 2,500 yards was possible like Peterson has.
Peterson hasn’t promised 2,500 yards, he’s just thrown it out there as a goal. Ridiculous? Everything Peterson did last year was pretty ridiculous.
Best not to make any guesses, just sit back and enjoy the show come Sunday.