On the NFL
8:57 PM PDT, October 11, 2012
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Apostle Matthew was not referring to the Vikings when he wrote in his gospel "the last shall be first," but they would like to think his words apply to them.
The same Vikings who won only three games in 2011 after starting out 1-4 now are 4-1 in 2012 and tied with the Bears for first place in the NFC North.
They have many more questions to answer before they fulfill any biblical prophesies. The Vikings' season could be determined with a four-game stretch beginning Nov. 11 against the Lions, Bears, Packers and Bears again.
The Vikings were up to their most significant challenge until this point. On Sept. 23, they handed the 49ers their only loss. And they didn't just beat them — they bullied the bullies.
"To win that game convincingly against a team people were saying was a Super Bowl contender, that was big for our confidence," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
Believing in themselves is not a problem for this group.
"Looking back on last year, in nine games we were either in a two-minute offense (at the end of the game) or the other team was," Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder said. "So we easily could have had a lot better record. We knew we had a good team. I knew that as I progressed, the offense would progress. I take a lot of blame for what happened last year."
In his second season, Ponder looks like a different quarterback. He has thrown only two interceptions and completed 69 percent of his passes, which has helped take the burden off running back Adrian Peterson. Ponder is one of several Vikings performing better than they did a year ago.
Another is Percy Harvin. He has drawn comparisons to Gale Sayers for his multiple contributions to his team. Harvin leads the NFL in total yards with 814 as he has been a threat on kickoffs (he leads the NFL in kickoff return yards and average), as a receiver (he is second in receptions) and as a running back.
"He might be the best player in the NFL right now," Ponder said.
Bill Musgrave, who is in his second season as Vikings offensive coordinator, is using Harvin differently this year to create more mismatches.
"Bill studied what we did a year ago, found creative ways to use him," Frazier said. "We are putting him in places we didn't before and letting him stay on the field a lot longer. The way we're moving him around is making it harder for defenses to find him."
Last season Harvin played 58.9 percent of the offensive snaps. This season, he is playing 72 percent.
The Vikings also are improved because of an infusion of new blood.
New defensive coordinator Alan Williams, another branch from the Tony Dungy tree, has made the Vikings defense proud again. The defensive rejuvenation has started against the run as the Vikings are the league's second best in allowing opponents to average only 3.2 yards per carry.
Several of general manager Rick Spielman's draft selections also have had significant impacts.
First-round pick Matt Kalil has yet to allow a sack at left tackle, and he has helped stabilize the entire offensive line. The Vikings expected Kalil to be good, which is why they chose him out of USC with the fourth overall pick. But they did not expect him to be this good this soon.
"We (thought) we almost always would have to have a tight end or a back chipping because there are so many great defensive ends in our league," Frazier said. "But rarely do we have to give him help. He has been outstanding, which allows us to do other things in the pass game and run game. … He should be a great player for a long time."
The Vikings' other first-round pick, safety Harrison Smith from Notre Dame, is in the early running for defensive rookie of the year.
"He has been a breath of fresh air for our secondary," Frazier said. "He makes plays down the field, and he's very, very physical. He'll knock you out."
Kicker Blair Walsh, a sixth-round pick, has connected on 12 of his 13 field goal attempts and has 17 touchbacks on kickoffs in five games. All last season, the Vikings had only two more.
So in many ways, these Vikings are not what they were.
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