Three weeks ago, after a demoralizing 34-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings appeared headed for a second straight dismal finish to their season. The loss to the Packers was complete in every sense of the word with the Packers running rough-shod over the Vikings' previously celebrated defense and the Vikings' offense clearly doing nothing. The loss put the Vikings at 3-6 and well on the outside looking in--if even looking--at the playoff picture.
Three weeks later, the Vikings' situation is much changed. After successive victories over the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions, the latter two by wide margins, the Vikings have positioned themselves in the driver's seat for one of the NFC's two wild-card spots. With the weakest remaining schedule of any team in the NFL, the odds appear strong that the Vikings will make the playoffs in 2007. And with a fundamental change in how things are done on offense, the Vikings now might be an unwelcome opponent for NFC playoff teams.
In week one of the 2007 season, the Vikings beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-3. In that victory, the Vikings had 23 first-down plays. Of those 23 first-down plays, the Vikings called eight passing plays and 15 running plays. Of the eight passing plays, the Vikings did not throw a ball more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage until the 13:12 mark of the third quarter.
In week ten of the season, the Vikings' 34-0 loss at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had a meager 11 first-down plays in the first three quarters of the game, by which time the score already read Green Bay 27 and Minnesota 0. Of those eleven plays, the Vikings threw six passes and ran the ball five times. The Vikings' first pass thrown more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage did not occur until the 2:12 mark of the third quarter, with the game in desperation mode.
This week, the Vikings ran 22 first-down plays by the 2:34 mark of the third quarter, the point at which the Vikings took a comfortable 28-10 lead and the point at which the Vikings rightfully opted to shift to a run-first mind-set to manage the game clock. Of the 22 first-down plays, the Vikings ran 11 pass plays and 11 running plays.
The shift in emphasis from the run to the pass between week one and week 13 is readily noticeable. But that shift in emphasis is only meaningful because the shift led to results that a similar shift in emphasis to the more balanced offensive playcalling did not lead to in the Vikings' week 10 loss to Green Bay.
While the Vikings did not attempt a non-dump-off pass in the week 10 loss at Lambeau Field until nearly the fourth quarter, on Sunday against the Lions, the Vikings threw several passes beyond the sticks in the first half alone, and many more for the game. Those passes forced the Lions to honor the option of the intermediate and deep routes opening up the running game and swing passes. The Vikings' long-overdue unshackeling of Jackson as a running threat only added to the Lions defensive concerns. The result was a much more explosive Minnesota offense than Vikings' fans have seen under head coach Brad Childress. And it was a welcome sight.
Opening up the offense not only paid dividends for the Vikings on offense, it paid equally significant dividends for the Vikings' defense. Unable to rely on the Vikings playing for a close victory, the Lions were forced to adhere to more predictable offensive schemes, thus giving the Vikings' defense an opportunity to work blitzes and normal rushing techniques more effectively. While it always helps to play a Mike Martz offense, particularly one that loses a key receiving weapon such as Roy Williams, the Vikings' game plan on Sunday likely would have shone against any opponent.
The lessons from Sunday are evident. After much resistance, Childress has finally come around to the notion that a balance between a meaningful passing scheme and a running attack are more formidable than is the dump-off game best left in the 1950s. If the Vikings continue with the formula employed today--particularly when it incorporates wide-receivers Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison into the game plan--they could be looking not only at the playoffs, but an opportunity to mean something in the playoffs.
Up Next: What the Vikings Have that the Patriots Do Not.