As the playoffs approach for the 2009-10 season, teams are either gaining confidence or losing it.
A prime example: the Minnesota Vikings.
An offseason of Brett Favre speculation turned into a reality after training camp was finished. Favre decided he would come back to play for at least one more year.
To the dismay of his Packers fan base, the 40-year-old quarterback, barring injury, would trot onto Lambeau Field wearing purple.
Essentially the best-case scenario played out for the Vikings, as they started out the season 11-1. Their only loss came in a tight game, on the road, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. All signs were pointing toward a run at the prize that has eluded the Vikings franchise since its existence.
Three weeks later, all of that hype built up over 12 weeks has been sucked out from underneath Vikings fans.
Two very disturbing losses, to the Arizona Cardinals and the lowly Carolina Panthers, have caused panic. A lack of a running game, a lack of pass blocking, a defense with significant injuries, and Favre arguing with coach Brad Childress on the sideline are the most worrisome aspects of the team.
I am going to argue that all of these concerns are meaningless, though, when it comes to the Vikings' long-term goals.
Favre has thrown for 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions through 14 games. If you told any Vikings fan in August that Favre would have those numbers at this point in the season, they would probably tell you that you are crazy. Favre has a passer rating of 104.1, unbelievably high considering his past performances leading into this season.
The biggest concern over the past few weeks is that Favre has been hit more lately than he has all season. It is true, but not as significant as it may have appeared to be against the Panthers.
Favre has been hit 73 times this season by opposing defenses. If you include the 31 times he has been sacked, Favre has been on his back 104 times this season. Minnesota has run about 875 offensive plays with Favre in the game. If you do the math, Favre has been hit roughly 12 percent of the time.
If you only consider passing plays, Favre has thrown 460. He has been hit on 22 percent of the time on those plays.
Considering that he is in the pocket a majority of the time, those are not terrible numbers. It's a lot of numbers to think about, but, to wrap it up, 27 percent of the hits on Favre have come in the past three games. Those three games comprise about 22 percent of the season thus far.
If you look at it as a whole the numbers are only up very slightly. And again, Favre has still only thrown an interception on 1.5 percent of his passes, remarkable for the old gunslinger.
Offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie has struggled in the two Vikings losses this year. He did go up against one of the top pass rushers in the league, Julius Peppers, this past week. Any left tackle in the NFL could have trouble with him when he is healthy and on his game.
Peppers had four hits on Favre and McKinnie was benched for his inconsistency. McKinnie has shown that he can be a top run-clocking tackle but has always shown the inability to stop elite pass-rushing defensive ends.
This is nothing new and has not changed since the beginning of the season. The Vikings just have not played any superstar ends to this point that rush from the right side. Childress should find a way to send help McKinnie's way when he is struggling that much in games. He needs to keep an extra back or tight end on his side in obvious passing situations and he did not. This problem is correctable and will not hinder the team in the long run.
The most worrisome fact is Adrian Peterson's inability to break off long runs this season. He has not shown the same speed this season and he obviously has something hampering him. The troubling fact is he only carried it 12 times against the Panthers. He only carried it 13 times in their loss to the Cardinals.
The time of possession statistic has been a huge issue for Minnesota, and it may have to do with the inability of getting Peterson going of late. The Vikings had the ball only about 22 minutes against Carolina, and it was really telling in their offensive statistics.
The defense faced 73 plays in the loss and 40 of them were running plays. On the other side, Minnesota ran the ball 14 times and threw the ball only 27 times. You would have to think that Minnesota needs to get the ball to Peterson on about 30 to 40 percent of the time to be successful.
If Peterson is completely healthy, that formula has been proven to be successful in the past and should be the goal of Childress. It's another easily correctable part of their offensive scheme, and it will likely change during the post season. What is usually a battle of ball control, I would still give the advantage to the Vikings in almost every matchup they could possibly face in the NFC.
The Antoine Winfield and E.J. Henderson injuries have taken their toll on the Vikings defense. Forcing younger and less talented players to get more playing time have been pretty obvious deficiencies in their losses.
Winfield looks like he can't plant on his injured leg. Henderson is likely out for the remainder of this season and most of next.
Their replacements have had little experience because of the talent those two players have shown. It takes time, and it is one of the advantages Minnesota boasts, having two weeks remaining to fine-tune its inexperienced defenders.
The Vikings will get a tough matchup in Week 17 against a pretty good wide receiver corps that the New York Giants will put on the field. I expect Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to sort things out on that side of the ball and have everything top notch moving into the playoffs.
Minnesota should beat the Bears this week and could play a team with no incentive of winning next week, if the Giants lose to the Panthers this week. Either way, Minnesota should win its next two games. I have a feeling the Broncos will upset the Eagles and Minnesota will only need to win one of its last two, but that is far from a sure thing.
Either way, Minnesota fans have a ton to look forward to this January and possibly February. A lot of insignificant problems are causing a panic that is being a little overblown.
The Favre-Childress scuffle will be mended. The two people involved are smart enough to not let something so trivial cost them their chance at glory.
Minnesota still should be considered one of the top three contenders coming out of the NFC.
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