Two weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers were the favorites to win the Super Bowl. Now they're in a tie for the NFC North lead with the Minnesota Vikings, who have quietly emerged as one of the NFC's top contenders.
Yes, the Vikings haven't played a tough schedule to date and, yes, the Packers just dropped back-to-back games against two of the NFL's best teams. But tough defense and a grinding rushing attack led the Vikings to a 6-2 record and with two games against the Packers left on the schedule, the NFC North title is still very much there for the taking.
With second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater leading the way, the Vikings are last in the NFL in passing touchdowns and just aren't pushing the ball down the field very well. However, the defense is keeping opponents off the scoreboard, Adrian Peterson looks like...well, Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings are winning close games.
A tough slate of opponents is on the way, but the Vikings have a strong chance at the postseason after putting together a four-game winning streak.
Only the Broncos allow fewer points than the Vikings
The Vikings have been remarkably consistent on defense, keeping nearly every opponent between 10 and 20 points. The sole exception was 23 points allowed to the Broncos, who kicked a game-winning field goal with less than two minutes remaining to drop Minnesota to 2-2.
Denver has been lauded for its elite defense in 2015, but the Vikings have allowed only one point more than the Broncos through eight games.
The Minnesota defense isn't particularly stellar in any aspect, but good enough in every area to give opposing offenses trouble. The Vikings allow 4.4 yards per carry, which is No. 24 in the NFL, and while they are No. 4 against opposing passers, only four teams have fewer interceptions.
Helping the Vikings defense is the fact that the offense doesn't turn the ball over very often, avoiding short fields for opponents. The Minnesota defense is No. 2 in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing a first down just 30 percent of the time.
The average starting field position for the Vikings is on their 30.2, fifth-best in the NFL, while opposing teams start on their own 23.6, third-best in the NFL. Only the undefeated New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals force opponents to drive longer fields.
Adrian Peterson's return has been a huge boost
Of the second-year quarterbacks who started last year, Bridgewater is the only one who hasn't taken a significant step forward. After 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 85.2 passer rating as a rookie, Bridgewater has six touchdowns, six interceptions and an 83.4 rating in 2015.
To be fair, Bridgewater has been under pressure on 45.1 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, up from 39.9 percent in 2014. The emergence of Stefon Diggs also helped Bridgewater jump from an average of 168.3 passing yards in September to 278 yards per game in October.
But the saving grace for the Vikings offense has been the return of Adrian Peterson, who looks as good as ever at age 30.
After starting the year with just 31 yards in a 20-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Peterson has averaged over 100 rushing yards in the seven games since. The Vikings have leaned on him to produce and he leads the NFL in rushing yards with 758 yards.
No player has taken more carries in 2015, but the Vikings using Peterson as a workhorse has kept Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata fresh as spell backs. The pair combine for an average of about five carries and two receptions per game with both backs averaging more than 4.2 yards per carry.
Schedule difference helped the Vikings climb back
The Vikings dropped a game to the Denver Broncos to fall to 2-2 just before a Week 5 bye. The three wins that followed came against teams that are a combined 7-17 before the Vikings earned an overtime win against the St. Louis Rams, who dropped to 4-4.
On the way for Minnesota is a five-game slate against a murderer's row of competition, while the Packers come down from their tough stretch with some easier matchups, including two upcoming games against the Detroit Lions:
|10||@ Raiders (4-4)||vs. Lions (1-7)|
|11||vs. Packers (6-2)||@ Vikings (6-2)|
|12||@ Falcons (6-3)||vs. Bears (3-5)|
|13||vs. Seahawks (4-4)||@ Lions (1-7)|
|14||@ Cardinals (6-2)||vs. Cowboys (2-6)|
|15||vs. Bears (3-5)||@ Raiders (4-4)|
|16||vs. Giants (5-4)||@ Cardinals (6-2)|
|17||@ Packers (6-2)||vs. Vikings (6-2)|
The difference in schedule strength certainly favors the Packers, but the NFC North will likely be decided by the outcomes of the battles between Green Bay and Minnesota in Weeks 11 and 17. Beating the Packers twice is a tall order, but the blueprint to beat them has been provided by the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, and a team like the Vikings that rely on defense and a strong rushing attack perfectly fit the formula.
Winning two games against the Packers would put Minnesota in position to win the division even if they drop two or three games otherwise.
The Vikings haven't been to the playoffs since 2012, but thanks to Adrian Peterson and Mike Zimmer's reconstruction of a defense that allowed the most points in the NFL in 2013, Minnesota is suddenly primed to make a run.