One outcome not hard to envision is humiliation: Adrian Peterson finally gets contained (how long can this brilliant run go on?), Christian Ponder stinks, the Viking pass rush can't get to Rodgers, and the Packers torch the Vikings through the air en route to a blowout win.
Another outcome, the one that I fantasize over during long runs and walks in the January cold, is a close, low-scoring affair. Peterson continues his dominance. The pass rush, which has been energized by Everson Griffen in particular lately, harries Aaron Rodgers. The score is something like 13-13 late in the game. Christian Ponder scrambles for some first downs, and makes the right throws to open receivers when he needs to. The Vikes get a late score and celebrate their way off Lambeau Field (at this point my fantasies overtake me--it's enough to keep my warm--and I'm envisioning win after perplexing playoff win. I just can't help myself).
It is the pass rush that gives me the most hope. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked a league high 51 times this year for an 8.5% sack rate: pass protection is one of the Packers' problems. And during their four game winning streak to end the season, the Vikings have 15 sacks. The Viking front seven can keep the team in the game by smothering the run and by rushing the passer consistently. If they can hurry Rodgers into throwing incompletions on third down, the Vikes can keep this cold weather game low scoring. Then it's up to Christian Ponder to avoid turnovers and Adrian Peterson to churn out first downs. It's up to Viking special teams to contain Green Bay's return game and get some good field position of its own. All of that can happen (it also might not)--but it won't matter if the Vikings can't stop the Packer offense, because I don't think we can win a shootout again. So it is all about the pass rush.
Do the Vikings have a deep playoff run in them?
The '12 Vikes ranked 14th in points scored and 14th in points allowed, making them offensively and defensively staunchly average. Usually teams that make the Super Bowl rank highly in either offense or defense: one unit or the other (if not both) carries the team to playoff wins. The last Super Bowl team that didn't rank in the top-10 in points scored or allowed was the 2007 Giants, who were 14th in points scored and 17th in points allowed. The Vikings have some similarities to that team: a below-average passing game (the Giants were better), a good running game (the Vikes are better), and an inconsistent defense that thrives when its dominant front-four pass rush is working (the Vikes are pretty comparable).
But aside from comparisons, let's consider what could help the Vikings make a deep playoff run.
#1 Adrian Peterson keeps going bananas.
#2 Christian Ponder plays competently.
#3 The front four pass rush wreaks havoc
#4 The Vikes catch opponents playing poorly.
#1 can happen, though Peterson has been on such a holy tear that I worry about a playoff letdown. #2 can happen, but certainly isn't something to count on. # 3 has to happen: the Viking secondary, while improved from last season, can be exploited, but when the pass rush is working, the Vikes can disrupt even a very good passing game. # 4 has to happen. The Vikings will play any 2012 playoff games on the road, and against most of those teams, if Minnesota brings its best game and the opponent brings its best game at the opponent's stadium, I think the Vikes will generally lose.
Does Christian Ponder have a playoff run in him?
If Ponder plays like he did the last two weeks, yes, he does. The Vikings played great defense against Houston and ran the ball great against Green Bay, but Ponder's steady play--well-timed runs, some decent pass conversions for first downs--also led the Vikes to the win. If the Vikes play good defense and run the ball well and Ponder plays like he did the last two weeks, the Vikes can win.
The problem with hoping too much in that is how bad Ponder played during the long stretch of the middle season. There was nothing about Ponder's play through most of October or November that pointed toward a playoff run. Has something clicked? Has there been progress all along that is showing more clearly? Or were the last few games a couple of fluky good games, and we can expect Ponder to be the Ponder he was the last time the Vikes went to Lambeau?
But I can always talk myself into believing in the Vikings. I always think things like "But Vince Ferragamo!" I won't really give up hope until the moment the Vikes are eliminated.
2012 Adrian Peterson > 1984 Eric Dickerson
Adrian Peterson had eight fewer rushing yards in 2012 than Eric Dickerson had in 1984, and one fewer total touchdown. Each RB led his team to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. But Peterson had better yards per attempt (6.0 to 5.6), and Peterson had more yards from scrimmage (2,314 to 2,244). Peterson never had fewer than 79 yards in a game, or 3.44 yards per attempt in a game; Dickerson was held to two terrible games (49 yards and 2.13 per attempt and 38 yards and 2.92 per attempt). Dickerson had 12 100 yard games to Peterson's 10, and they each had two 200+ yard games, a 190+ yard game, and a 175+ yard game.
I respect records and all-time greatness; Dickerson has the record and he's an all-time great. But Peterson's eight fewer yards came on 31 fewer carries, and when you add in receiving numbers (40-217-1 for Peterson, 21-139 for Dickerson), it seems to me that Peterson did just a little bit more for his team than Dickerson did for his team in that particular year.
When I first read that the Bears fired Lovie Smith, I was surprised and disappointed for him: I think he's a good coach. A second later I remembered I am a Viking fan and I smiled, because Lovie Smith has made the Bears exactly the kind of team that torments the Vikings. Smith's teams were always sound and often dominant in special teams and defense, and they dominated the Vikings outside of the Dome. In fact the Vikes beat the Bears at Soldier Field exactly once during Smith's nine years with the team. Now Smith is fired after a 10-6 season, after winning 56.3% of his games over a nine year stretch. I have trouble believing the next Bears' coach will be as good as Lovie Smith. As a Viking fan, that is hopeful. People: we might beat the Bears at Soldier Field again!
My view is that once a coach establishes he can keep a team consistently competitive (five winning seasons in the last eight with three playoff trips is, in my view, consistently competitive), that team is better off keeping that coach until he flames out fabulously. Andy Reid flamed out fabulously. Dennis Green had the Vikes in the playoffs in eight of nine years before flaming out fabulously (though it's also hard not to wonder if the franchise would have been better off since if they had kept him). 10-6 is not flaming out fabulously. The Bears made a mistake, and I think they'll be a worse team for it. For Viking fans, this is a good thing.
Good luck to Lovie Smith: may he go do his good coaching in the AFC.
Kick Ass Links
Jim Klobuchar previews the game (MinnPost).
According to Football Outsiders, the Vikes have a .4% chance of winning the Super Bowl.
At least all our tension will be wiped out before Sunday. Have a good weekend, everybody. Except Packer fans.