As all you loyal readers know, I pronounced this season over after Daunte got hurt, Steve Smith paddled his canoe in the endzone and the Panthers destroyed the Vikings. Well, it looks like I was wrong. The Vikings have a legitimate shot at the playoffs now. Like the world beginning anew after Ragnarok, the Vikings have resurrected their season.
It didn't happen today. Today was just the final step in their return to "playoff contender" status. It started with the victory over Detroit, which, while nice, wasn't really all that impressive, as they haven't beaten a Mike Tice led team ever (that should be all you need to know about how good a football team they are). Then the fluke win over the Giants (fluke: n. 1. a chance occurrence; an accident 2. returning a punt, a kickoff and an interception for a touchdown). After that, I still wasn't ready to accept the Vikings as a legitimate playoff contender. I expected a let down at Lambeau. Instead, they beat the Packers and now, they've beaten the Browns to climb over .500 for the first time this year.
I realize now why I was wrong to pronounce the season over. It was a simple mistake, really--I forgot to take into account the strength of schedule, and, more importantly, I forgot to heed Ted Cottrell's warning that defenses take time to gel. And gel this defense has. The Vikings haven't had a defense like this since I started following the team in 1997. The line is constantly in the quarterback's face, Pat Williams is falling on running backs left and right, Darren Sharper is making quarterbacks think twice about where they are throwing the ball (time they no longer have thanks to Erasmus James et al.), the linebackers, led by Keith Newman, are actually making plays and Antoine Winfield is playing Pro Bowl caliber corner again. It seems they have some depth too--Dovonte Edwards and C.J. Mosley have both been game changers while filling in for injured starters. It took a while, but this defense is living up to its preseason hype and should continue to do so.
Now, of course, this defense hasn't really had to face any of the NFL's upper echelon offenses(except, maybe for the Giants--but Eli is still only in his second season). Joey, Senile Brett and Trent are not exactly Peyton, Brett in his Prime and Dan from Pittsburgh. That being said, how many times in the past few years have crappy offenses looked like the '98 Vikings against our defense? I know I don't have enough fingers to count the times, that's for sure.
Secondly, it's not like any of the teams the Vikings have left on their schedule have exceptional offenses (remember, expectations have been revised to have "making the playoffs" as the goal). The Steelers and the Rams are both in the upper half of the league in scoring, but the Steelers will have to go through Pat Williams and the Rams are, to put it kindly, turnover prone.
I can't tell you for sure whether the Vikings' defensive success is a product of their schedule, or if its because they've come together as a unit (like all either/or debates, it's probably both). I do know that it's fun to watch the defense play again and that if they continue to play like this, they are going to get their shot at a NFC North Championship game against Da Bears on New Year's Day at the Metrodome.