Tuesday, December 09, 2008

When 8-5 Feels Like 6-6

On Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings traveled to Ford Field to take on the 0-12 Detroit Lions. There has been no trick to beating the hapless Lions this season. Show up and Detroit collapses.

That rule of thumb has held for every game this year, including Sunday's Vikings' victory that pushed the Lions to 0-13. To Vikings' head coach Brad Childress, that's all that matters. To paying customers who expect to receive a better return on their high-priced tickets and time spent watching the team, being one of two teams this year to allow the Lions to stay within a touchdown and the only team to do so twice makes this year's Vikings underwhelming, even at 8-5.

For the eternal optimists among the Vikings' faithful, there are several promising signs. At 8-5, the Vikings are in prime position to make the playoffs for the first time in the Childress era. Two more wins or one more win combined with a Chicago loss and the Vikings win the NFC North.

For optimists, the Vikings' edge in the race to make the playoffs only slightly bests the encouraging signs from erstwhile starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. After hitting several open receivers on Sunday and guiding the Vikings to two second-half touchdowns, Jackson did what Gus Frerotte was unable to do and did so while using a skill that long-ago abandoned Frerotte, the ability to scramble.

Pessimists will be quick to note, however, that, despite the 8-5 record, the Vikings could still finish with the third best record in the NFC North with losses in the team's remaining three games. With games left against Arizona, Atlanta, and the New York Giants, that's not beyond the realm of possibilities, particularly if U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson upholds the NFL's suspension of Pat and Kevin Williams.

Even losses in two of the team's remaining three games, however, combined with Chicago victories in two of Chicago's remaining three games, likely would leave the Vikings out of the playoffs. With a far easier remaining schedule, the Bears well could run the table, forcing the Vikings to win at least two of three to clinch a playoff spot.

What complicates the Vikings' situation further, the pessimists will contend, is that the Vikings very likely will have to rely on the continuing uneven performance of third-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for some or all of the team's remaining games. On Sunday, Jackson hit open receivers. But he also continued to exhibit the weaknesses that made him easy for most teams to defend against and made him a liability as a starting quarterback.

It was no surprise to see the Vikings call on Jackson to hit the deep pass early in the second half of his first real action since week two of the season. Nor was it any real surprise to see Jackson wildly overthrow the intended receiver. That, after all, was one of Jackson's unfathomable weaknesses as a starter. For whatever reason, he simply seems to have no feel for the deep pass. In the rare instance that such a pass connects, it seems fortuitous rather than skilled. And for a team that only uses the deep pass once or twice a game, that's a significant short-coming for a starting quarterback to exhibit.

Nor does Jackson necessarily make up for his deep-ball short-coming by demonstrating poise in the pocket. Jackson was fortunate not to have a horribly thrown pass picked by any one of three defenders in the second half Sunday. A pick and the game would have been over. Only Detroit's penchant for missing on such plays seemed to save the day for the Vikings and Jackson. Similar fortune should not be expected against the Cardinals, Falcons, or Giants.

Finally, pessimists will note, the Vikings did to a far lesser extent on Sunday, what all other Lions' opponents have done this year. They threw less against the Lions, ran for less, and scored less. That recipe works against the Lions because the Lions are so magnificently deficient in each of these areas. Against better competition--the likes of which the Vikings will face the next three weeks and, should they move on, in the playoffs--the Vikings' best prospects thus appear still more hopeful than certain. That is is why some Vikings' fans remain unconvinced that this team is any different from Childress' previous two teams in Minnesota.

Up Next: The Pat and Kevin Williams Saga Continues.

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