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It's not only Adrian Peterson. Though it is mostly Adrian Peterson.
I don't know if it's harder to believe that the Vikings nearly went to the Super Bowl three years ago or that they went 3-13 last season. Minnesota simply doesn't seem that bad... or that good. Yet, they are back in the playoffs quicker than anyone could have imagined (at least anyone that has seen Christian Ponder play) and truth be told: They have proven that they belong.
It really seemed like the Vikings were too talented to lose thirteen games in 2011, as they had elite players like Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, and Jared Allen. However, Donovan McNabb did not have the "old man magic" that Brett Favre had in 2009, and the Vikings' passing offense (and passing defense) was just about the worst in the NFL. That's how a team with a few elite players ends up 3-13. But it's also how a last-place team can wind up in the playoffs just a year later. (Paying attention, Kansas City?)
Peterson got healthy again. Actually, he got so healthy you wouldn't believe it, arguably the MVP of the league. Matt Kalil has quickly lived up to his expectations as a franchise left tackle, as the Vikings allowed 17 fewer sacks this season and opened up holes for nearly 2,100 AP yards. Fellow rookie Harrison Smith returned two interceptions for touchdowns. With a few changes, a few players getting healthy, Minnesota is in the playoffs for the fourth time in thirteen years.
How can they shock the world?
Why the Vikings win the Super Bowl
Hot at the right time
Other teams have longer winning streaks than Minnesota, but has anyone done anything as impressive over their last four games of the year? (Yes, the Seahawks, but besides that ridiculousness.) The Vikings needed to win all of their final four games to make the playoffs after falling to 6-6. First they beat the Bears. Then they went to St. Louis and beat a much-improved Rams team. Then they went to Houston and beat the Texans. And finally they took care of the Packers in the season finale to hold off Chicago.
If you would have asked me if there was a better chance of going 0-4 in those games than 4-0, I would have picked the former before you had given me an alternate answer. (Bad strategy by the way. What if you had said, "Do you think there is better chance of the Vikings going 0-4 or... would you like an all-expense paid trip to Vegas?" I mean, I have a gambling problem but you did say "all-expense".)
The Vikings have proven that they can beat good teams and that they can beat them on the road. They have to travel to Green Bay in the first round, never an easy place to play or an easy team to beat, but in order for Minnesota to win that game they only have to do what they just did less than a week earlier: Beat the Packers.
If they do that, they'll be headed to Atlanta, and everyone believes that the Falcons are vulnerable, plus Minnesota likes playing in a dome. And if they do that, well, then why count out the Vikings at that point? Minnesota beat the Packers once, they led at halftime of the other game between the two teams. Just take it one game at a time.
The only non-playoff teams that Minnesota lost to were the Buccaneers and the Bears, and if they had lost to the Bears twice, the Bears would be a playoff team. Bears.
The Vikings lost to the Colts in Indianapolis. The Redskins in Washington. The Seahawks in Seattle. The Bears in Chicago. The Packers in Green Bay. That probably isn't a strong argument for them winning three road games in the playoffs, but it does show that Minnesota's record could be deceiving. It's very hard to win road games, especially those road games. The Vikings are 10-6 but maybe with an easier schedule end up with 12 or 13 wins. We'd sure view them a lot differently. (Right, Atlanta?)
Minnesota also beat the 49ers relatively easily, a team they might face in the NFC Championship game, should they make it that far.
Because Adrian Peterson is good
The Vikings did a good job of blocking for Peterson, but he did a great job of picking up extra yards. In fact, he picked up over 1,000 extra yards. ESPN reports that Peterson ran for 1,019 yards after contact and that number alone would rank Peterson 16th in the NFL in rushing. But he also ran for over 1,000 yards before contact and finished with 6.0 yards per carry. These numbers are ridiculous for anyone, let alone a full-time back coming off of ACL surgery and therefore destroying the argument that it's impossible to play well in the first year after that surgery.
Play well? You can play as good as anyone ever, apparently.
Peterson is one of the top ten players in the NFL right now, and you can include quarterbacks on that list. He might be one of the top five. It's not often that I count a running back in that high of regard, because the position is so dependent on a solid offensive line and sometimes even Olandis Gary looks like a Pro Bowl player, but Peterson is the real deal. Giving the ball to AP means that you can control the clock while picking up first downs, which is even more important when you ponder that Ponder couldn't hit a pond with a rock. Not only is Peterson good, but he's gotten better as the season goes on.
He comes into the postseason after averaging 172.2 yards per game in five December games. He ran for 409 yards on 7.44 yards per carry against Green Bay. Yes, when you've got Adrian Peterson, you always have a chance to win.
Why the Vikings won't win the Super Bowl
Over the last 10 games of the season, Ponder threw for under 100 yards three times. Peterson ran for under 100 yards only once in that time. I feel like David Spade saying, "Hmmm, he sheems like a nishe guy!" because Ponder does seem like a nice guy, but he has got work to do if he is going to stick as a starter because he can be wildly inaccurate.
Ponder's job is to defer to Peterson and not turn the ball over. The Vikings don't have a lot of receiving weapons as it is. But if Minnesota falls behind against a good run defense like the Seahawks or 49ers, is Ponder going to be the one to bring them back?
On the road, the Vikings were 3-5 and Ponder had only 5.27 yards per attempt with just seven touchdowns. That will have to change if Minnesota is going to win three road playoff games.
No Percy Harvin
This could be a good thing since Minnesota turned their season around after Harvin was injured and there appears to be bad blood between Harvin and Leslie Frazier, but it doesn't change the fact that the Vikings lack weapons outside of Peterson. Harvin was the most talented receiver on the team and one of the most talented open-field players in the NFL and he will probably show what he can do somewhere else next season.
However, take out Harvin and now the Vikings' leading receiver is tight end Kyle Rudolph with 493 yards. And then Michael Jenkins, who averages 28 yards per game. Jarius Wright certainly looks like a player with a lot of potential, but he is still young and inconsistent.
When you absolutely need a receiver to make a play because it's the fourth quarter and you need 80 yards for a touchdown, which player on this team is going to be the one to do that? It's a problem.
The Vikings got better on defense this year, but they were just that terrible last year. Chad Greenway, Jared Allen, Harrison Smith, Kevin Williams... there are good players on defense. But is it good enough to overcome a bad quarterback? Trent Dilfer had the Ravens defense. Brad Johnson had the Buccaneers defense. Rex Grossman went to the Super Bowl with the Bears defense. Are Christian Ponder and this defense a recipe for a championship?
Advanced Stats site Football Outsiders ranked the Vikings 21st in DVOA on defense (and 15th on offense, but they came out 5th on special teams) and Minnesota just didn't force many turnovers this season. Winning in the playoffs almost always correlates to winning the turnover battle, so the Vikings will need to force mistakes and take advantage of everyone while protecting the football.
I'd also note that Blair Walsh, who just put together one of the best seasons for a kicker in NFL history, missed a 42-yard field goal at Lambeau this year, one of only three misses for Walsh on the year.
The Vikings defense can have great days, but can they have four of them in a row against the best the league has to offer? If they can, it will be their first Super Bowl title in team history (0-for-4) and 3-13 will be an even more distant memory.