By Joseph Gunther
Much to the surprise of most of the football world, the Minnesota Vikings are right in the thick of the playoff chase.
Vikings fans can be excited about that, along with several other things. However, it still needs help to pass the five teams it is chasing for a wild card and division championship spot.
The three things heading upward
Adrian Peterson’s MVP and rushing record chase: The league’s best running back is now 506 yards short of setting the NFL’s single season rushing record of 2,105 set by Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams. He needs 168.67 yards per game against the St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers. It will not be easy, but is easily doable. He already has put up 210 yards on the Packers this season. That leads to the next part of the trend is the MVP award. It will come down to two things; one is how the voters determine the “most valuable player” and if the team needs to make the playoffs. The Vikings are only one game out of a wild card spot, and it is all because of Peterson. Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos is considered one of the top competitors, but his team is at best five wins better this year than it was last year. Peterson has nearly single-handedly already improved the Vikings by four wins.
Harrison Smith’s bid for the defensive rookie of the year: The idea may have been crazy a few weeks ago, but 25 tackles and two interceptions over the NFC North’s top two teams in the last three weeks has put him in the top four among rookies in tackles, interceptions and defensive touchdowns. It is unlikely he will be considered for the award at this point, but a few more games like his recent performances could make him deserving.
The play of the offensive line: The Vikings offensive line is one of the most improved units in the NFL. The addition of Matt Kalil in the first round of the draft allowed Charlie Johnson to move down to guard. Last season Christian Ponder was under siege, which may explain his skittish nature in the pocket. However, this season he has been sacked just 28 times this season, which ranks in the middle of the NFL. The feather in the unit’s cap is Peterson’s chase for the rushing record. The line has opened holes and allowed Peterson to get to the second level.
The three things heading downward
Christian Ponder’s play: He is under pressure to produce and really has been average at best. There has been nothing to suggest that if Peterson is injured or ineffective that Ponder can win the game for the Vikings. His signature moment this season was what? The last minute three-play, 32-yard drive to tie the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Mall of America Field in Week 1 or the nine-play, 46-yard drive that tied the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 2? Either way, it was very early in the season.
Phil Loadholt’s future with the Vikings: The fourth-year right tackle is in the final year of his rookie contract, but three false start penalties at home (although one may have actually been committed by a different lineman) is not a way to give the team confidence to offer an extension. The team elevated third-year veteran Troy Kropog from the practice squad roster late last week to replace Percy Harvin, and still have yet to have rookie Mark Asper active for a game this season.
Roughing the passer penalties: Kevin Williams and Everson Griffen were called for roughing the passer penalties in each of the last two games that negated big plays by the Vikings’ defense. Williams was flagged for hitting Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers while Jared Allen intercepted a batted pass in Week 13. The interception would have set the Vikings’ offense up with the ball on the Packer 16-yard line. Griffen was flagged for tackling Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears last Sunday while Allen was recording a sack and forced fumble that would have cost the Bears 10 yards. Both were questionable calls and both offset holding penalties drawn by Allen.
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. His work can be found on Examiner.com.