Everything Falling Into Place

We Vikings fans should by now be called, as a matter of course, Long Suffering Vikings Fans.

It’s been more than three decades since the Vikings have appeared in a Super Bowl. Their best squad of the 70s, the 1975 team, had a Super Bowl berth stolen from them by the Hail Mary pass.

In 1987, the Vikings were a correctly run route away from probably making it back to the Big Dance.

In 1998, we assembled one of the best teams in the history of the league, set a season scoring record, lost only one regular season game, yet still couldn’t close the deal to make it back to the Super Bowl.

These days, we simply ask for a playoff appearance or two.

And so it is with resignation that we watched the Vikings blow a chance to secure their place in the post season this year by generously handing the Atlanta Falcons a win last week and watching the inevitable as the Packers collapsed to the Bears.

All the pieces are falling into place for yet another Vikings December collapse.

Now we have the far more difficult task of beating a New York Giants team that is infinitely better than the Falcons or hoping beyond hope for a Texans’ victory over the Bears.

You can see why we are Ye Of Little Faith these days.

But though I’m not holding out much hope for the post season this year, I will nevertheless focus on the positive.

First and foremost, the most positive development is the seemingly drastic turnaround of Tarvaris Jackson‘s game. After last week, his play has improved so much, in fact, that I had no reservations whatsoever of buying a TJax uniform for my nephew for Christmas.

He was thrilled.

As am I at Jackson’s turnaround. He’s making great decisions; his ability to run with the ball adds another dangerous dimension to the offense that opponents will have to defend. When defenses play man against us, there’s always the threat of Tarvaris ripping off a 15 yard gain (though I’d be perfectly happy if he’d learn how to slide at the end of them).

He’s made some fantastic throws. About the only throw he still has a problem with is the long ball. It baffles me that he apparently has absolutely no touch on a ball that I think is one of the easiest to throw.

Still, he moved the team up and down the field against a good Falcons team and were it not for the seven (seven!!) fumbles, the Vikings would have won the game. It wasn’t because of Jackson that we lost the game. If he continues his great play against the Giants, I think we will have seen enough to give us confidence that he is the quarterback of the future we’d hoped he’d be.

And if that happens, I think Brad Childress has secured his future as head coach for another year, regardless of whether or not we reach the playoffs this year. If TJax justifies Childress’ faith in him and considering the strides this offense has made this year, we should see Chilly return next year.

The question remains, though, of whether he keeps his offensive coordinator, Darren Bevell, as his playcaller. The Vikings offensive play calling has been uninspiring at best and consistently predictable.

The other big story on the offensive side of the ball this year has been Visanthe Shiancoe. Shiancoe has turned out to be the rockstar Childress predicted he’d be. Here’s another case where Childress’ talent evaluation has proven correct–though it took a mighty long time for the evidence to surface. Bernard Berrian‘s 99 yard touchdown reception was possible because Shiancoe is a legitimate threat; the safety bit on that play to cover Shiancoe, leaving Berrian all alone.

We haven’t had a big play tight end like Shiancoe since Steve Jordan. It’s been that long.

Adrian Peterson is, of course, Adrian Peterson. He’ll end the season as the leading rusher in the NFL this year. But he’s had eight fumbles this year and his fumbles last week cost us a game we needed to clinch a playoff appearance.

As phenomenally talented as he is, he needs to improve next year: 1) He has to stop fumbling and learn to switch the ball to his outside arm during runs, and 2) he needs to improve his pass blocking skills so he isn’t on the sideline on third downs and in obvious passing situations.

The defense has been outstanding and that bodes well for next year. Jared Allen has made all the difference in the world; by improving the pass rush exponentially, he’s improved the pass coverage that much as well. Defensive backs and linebackers do not have to cover receivers as long as they used to because we’re getting to the quarterback much faster this season.

I’ve had a lot of problems with Chad Greenway‘s play; his trouble shedding blocks and some of his decisions have been poor. But he’s made tremendous strides this year. With the return of E.J. Henderson next year, the Vikings should have a top-five linebacker corps next year.

Cedric Griffin has turned the corner with a vengance. He had another outstanding game last week: Staying with receivers, batting away passes, making Winfieldesque tackles, jamming receivers at the line, and playing in control. If he continues this progress (and there’s no reason to think he won’t), we should have a top-five cornerback tandem next year as well.

My only concern is Darren Sharper, who I expect will be allowed to leave for free agency after the season. It looks like Sharper has lost a step. He seems to be late in coverage and has consistently taken bad angles on tackles this year. Tyrell Johnson played well at the beginning of the season, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start next year.

There’s a lot to be encouraged about for next year regardless of how this season turns out.

Time To Clinch – Minnesota Vikings Vs. Atlanta Falcons Preview

Today’s game is the best chance the Vikings have among the two remaining games of the season of controlling their own destiny. Though the Falcons boast the second best runner (second only to Adrian Peterson, of course) in the league, the Vikings match up better against Atlanta than they do against the last team on their regular season schedule, the New York Giants.

After an abysmal year with Michael Vick‘s legal troubles and the coach abandoning his team, this year’s Falcons squad is a great story. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has been stellar and running back Michael Turner has been the steal of free agency.

Still, like the Cardinals, Atlanta seems to be a better team on paper than they are in person. Yes, they have a winning record (9-5) but like Arizona, their victories have mostly come at the expense of soft teams. They’ve split their series with division rivals and only barely pulled out a win last week at home against a fading Tampa Bay team minus starting quarterback Jeff Garcia.

Division games are unique in that division opponents are much more familiar with one another since they play each other twice a season, every season.

Take away their division victories and the only team Atlanta has beat with a winning record has been Chicago, and that game they won by only two points. Outside of their division, they lost to the two teams they’ve played with winning records, Philadelphia and Denver. Atlanta’s losses within their division all occurred on the road.

The Vikings are coming off their first victory in which they really played together as a team for the first time this season. They made few mistakes. Even on the drive that began with two false starts, which earlier in the year would have derailed a drive, they overcame the penalties by capping the drive with a score.

Minnesota Vikings v Arizona Cardinals

Cedric Griffin had his best day as a Viking and has steadily improved over the course of the season. Matched up against Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald with league MVP candidate Curt Warner throwing them the ball, Griffin more than held his own. He jammed receivers off the line, stayed with them in coverage, and made an amazing one-handed interception (and he probably should have had two more). Griffin doesn’t give receivers nearly as much cushion and when he goes for the tackle now he’s not only quick but also under control. Remember how he used to fly off receivers because he came in too fast to wrap them up? No longer.

While Griffin can credit Jared Allen and the pressure the defensive line brings to bear on opposing quarterbacks, there’s no question his game has improved immensely.

Despite Arizona’s blocked kick return for a touchdown, special teams were uncharacteristically solid during recent weeks. I can only imagine that Childress heeded the screams of Bud Grant telling him to use more veterans on the unit.

It’s true that Tarvaris Jackson has looked a lot better during the game and a half since subbing for the injured Gus Frerotte, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I know the clamor among fans and media alike has been to start Jackson for the rest of the season but let’s be real. He rallied us to a win against…the Lions. And his primary job last week was to hand off to Adrian Peterson. It was Frerotte, after all, who got us to this point.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to be happy about Jackson’s recent play and hopeful about his future. He did not looked panicked under center, which is probably the most important improvement in his play. He made good reads for the most part and threw some very tough passes–the touchdown’s to Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade in particular.

A primary complaint I’ve had of Jackson during his entire tenure as a Viking has been his abysmal inaccuracy on the long ball. The commentators and post-game analysts proclaimed Jackson’s TD pass to Bernard Berrian “perfect” but it wasn’t; it was under thrown and Berrian had to pull up to haul it in. It was a great catch by Berrian. But at least it was catchable and I’ll take that over his typical unreachable overthrow.

But as we’re looking to clinch a playoff berth, shouldn’t we be dancing with the one who brung us? That’s why I’m a little surprised Childress has opted for inexperience over the unflappable veteran leadership of Frerotte.

The Vikings’ game plan against the Falcons should be pretty much the same plan they used against the Cardinals. Run the ball a lot on offense, control the clock to keep the ball out of the hands of Ryan and Turner, and to put Jackson in high-percentage passing situations.

Minnesota Vikings v Arizona Cardinals

A heavy dose of Peterson and Chester Taylor will help to neutralize pass rusher extraordinaire John Abraham. The Falcons will play Abraham on either side to take advantage of mismatches, so the Vikes can’t put Ryan Cook out on an island against him or we may see Jackson become panicky again.

On defense, the Vikings will need to do what they’ve done all season: Shut down the run and harass the quarterback. This will be much easier said than done. The Falcons have not only dynamic running back Michael Turner in their backfield but also Jerious Norwood, who, though he doesn’t get much action, is no slouch. You can’t have the second leading rusher in the league without having a great offensive line, regardless of the softness of your schedule. This line has given up precious few sacks, as well. And we’ll be facing Turner and Ryan minus Pat Williams. Today we get to see what kind of depth we’ve got at defensive tackle.

But that’s what we need to do to win. Shut ’em down and make Matt Ryan beat us. The Falcons haven’t fared too well when Ryan throws 30 to 40 passes. While he’s clearly talented, he’s still a rookie and he’s never played in a venue as loud as the Dome. We’ll need to get in his face and make him uncomfortable, if not sack him.

Our corners will need to bump the receivers off the line to delay their routes, especially Roddy White, who has finally decided to turn into the elite receiver many expected him to become.

While Darren Sharper ma y have plenty of fond memories of Eli Manning interceptions, the New York Giants are a very good team and the Falcons may not be. This is our best chance for victory of the two games that remain.