Division determinations on the horizon

The Vikings know they are entering an important stretch of divisional play, starting Sunday against Detroit.

The Vikings have had their ups and downs in the 2012 season, but the one thing that has been missing from their schedule to date is multiple divisional games. The Vikings have played nine games this year, including three games against the AFC South and three more against the NFC West.

By the time the regular season ends, the Vikings will play six games against the NFC North. To date, they have played just one – a Week 4 win at Detroit. Their next four games will be against the NFC North – at home against Detroit Sunday, at Chicago Nov. 25, at Green Bay Dec. 2 and at home against the Bears Dec. 9.

While the Vikings have erased many of their early advantages from their hot start with losses to Washington, Arizona and Tampa Bay, they still maintain a 1-0 record in the division and in some ways control their own destiny. This next four-week stretch will define the 2012 season for the Vikings. Asked if, for better or worse, the season may be remembered most for what happens over the next month, defensive end Brian Robison said there's little doubt.

"Absolutely," Robison said. "Four division games in a row would be the defining moment for any team. We've got to make sure we win as many of those games as we can, if not all of them. It all starts with Detroit and that's all we can focus on because if you start looking too far ahead, it will jump on you."

From the time the schedule was released, there were a couple of things that stood out. First, was that the opponents early on had the look of teams that the Vikings would have a good chance of beating. In the first nine games of the schedule, only two of them were against 2011 playoff teams (San Francisco and Detroit). But the stretch of divisional games to close the schedule stood out to the players.

"It caught my eye from the very beginning when we first looked at the schedule at the beginning of the year," linebacker Erin Henderson said. "It's one of those stretches that you really know is going to make or break your season, depending on what kind of situation you put yourself into. At the beginning of the season, we got off to a great start. Things were looking up for us. Now we've started to dig ourselves into a hole, but it's not hard for us to get out of right now. It's not too deep. It's not too steep at all. It's just a matter of us fighting, scratching and clawing like we always do and being able to get back up."

It would be different if the Vikings had been struggling as they did last year, when they were 2-7 through nine games, already eliminated from any hope of postseason play and were essentially playing out the string of games to end their disappointing season. This time, it's very different. The Vikings have struggled in recent weeks, but until they get beaten in division games, they control their path to the postseason and this coming four-game stretch will be critical to whether they achieve their improbable goal or not.

"Any time you've got basically everybody in the division back to back, you know it's going to be an important stretch of the season," offensive tackle Phil Loadholt said. "It will be a good challenge for us and a good chance for us to see where we are when compared to those teams. We're looking forward to that."

The Lions are first on that list of four games and, while they've changed considerably since the Vikings played them in Week 4, but the Vikings have seen their personnel this season and have that experience, which should give a bit of a shorthand look into what the Lions will be looking to accomplish Sunday, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

"It's a good thing to see it once and see what they like to do and get a chance to get an idea how they want to attack us," Henderson said. "As far as their game plan goes, you know they're going to come back this time with a couple of tweaks and do a couple things different here and there, but it's great to have an opportunity to see it once and prepare."

After the bye week following Sunday's game, the Vikings will play the Bears twice in three weeks, sandwiched around a game at Lambeau Field. The Vikings will be rested for this difficult stretch and the feeling is that the timing is right to play them, since both the Bears and Packers are viewed as near locks to make the playoffs and the preparation for the first game won't be much different from the prep for the second time around.

"Playing Chicago and Green Bay back to back I think is a good thing," Loadholt said. "You've kind of got a good feel for those teams already, but when you play them so quickly, I don't think it's an advantage or a disadvantage, but you do know they won't have changed that much from the first time you play them to the second time. The same things you do the first time will probably carry over the second time."

A month from today, we will know much more about the 2012 Vikings. They have their season on the line and could either be viewed as one of the favorites to make the playoffs or one of the teams that the other playoff teams need to beat to reach their own goals. The next four games – good, bad or otherwise – will provide the answers for the 2012 season.

"This is it," defensive tackle Fred Evans said. "This is the first time in my career that I can remember a stretch like this – Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay, Chicago, Green Bay. This pretty much will define who we will be in the 2012-13 NFL season. Every game is important, but scheduling-wise, this is a serious run we have to get on, because every win and loss counts double when it's against a team in your division."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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