For Vikings, respite before the real chase

Vikings players are getting some time off this week, but their season will be on the line when they return for three NFC North games, including two on the road. The players know what they're in for.

Most of the Minnesota Vikings players left the Twin Cities to enjoy some time away from football for the first time since late July.

The bye week is providing a much-needed rest after the players have been in session since training camp opened in late July. Back then, quarterback Christian Ponder was being called out for saying he thought the Vikings were a playoff team. Ten weeks into the season, they are right in the thick of the race.

"It's extremely nice. That's what Coach (Leslie) Frazier talked about Monday, coming in and putting the past in the past and looking forward," star running back Adrian Peterson said. "The most important thing was going into the bye 6-4 and guys bought into it. We knew it was going to be a fight and ultimately we accomplished that. We get a week to relax, come back and we have a lot of divisional games coming up and we are going to test our will to just see how bad we want it. But it's good to go into it at 6-4."

Peterson is a big reason for that record. He leads the league in rushing, is averaging 112 yards per game and is entering his name in the conversation for the league's MVP.

The Vikings got off to a 4-1 start, led by key wins against San Francisco and at Detroit. But before Sunday's win in their second meeting against Detroit, the Vikings had dropped three of their last four and were being considered for life support.

Had the Vikings dropped their second outing against Detroit, they still would have been .500 at 5-5. It wouldn't have meant they were completely out of the playoff chase, but it would have been hard to keep a positive outlook if they would have suffered a third consecutive loss and dropped four of their last five.

"Absolutely. It's a mental game. You're going to lose games, but how you lose them, how will this loss have an effect? You go on a three-game skid going into the bye and I don't know if guys come back so focused," defensive end Jared Allen said. "I've been in this league a long time. I don't know if I'd come back so focused. Now you have a whole week to sit there and wonder, ‘What if?' and start questioning things.

"It was a tough week around our spot, especially after getting drummed two weeks in a row. To come back and answer the way we did and play in dominant fashion boosts guys' confidence. Now people kind of look at it and there's light at the end of the tunnel. We're going into things, there's six games left, the playoff picture is available. We've got to start making some moves."

Their upcoming scheduled, while a bit daunting, will at least give them an idea of their readiness for the playoffs. Five of their next six games are against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today.

However, the mental break before that trying six-week stretch is welcome.

"It's definitely nice. Obviously we wouldn't want to be on the other end of it, knowing what our schedule's going to be like after the bye week," Ponder said. "We're happy to win and get back on the right page. There are still a lot of things we have to work on. Obviously red zone offense, it's a good thing we have a good kicker because we definitely left some points off the board. There are still a lot of things we have to work on, but we're excited to use this as a stepping stone."

When they return to Winter Park on Monday, the Vikings will start preparations for Chicago (7-2), which just dropped its first game since a Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Bears lost to the Houston Texans (8-1), the only AFC team left on the Vikings' schedule.

While Minnesota trails the Bears and Packers (6-3), the Vikings' schedule, the toughest in the second half of the season, allows them the opportunity to control their playoff destiny. Their next three games will be against the Bears, Packers and Bears again, with two out of three on the road.

"The next three weeks are kind of our season, as far as our division is concerned," Allen said.

Said Ponder: "Obviously they are two very good teams, but we will focus on Chicago for now, who I think may be the best team in the league right now. They have great defense. We're going to have to be really focused and go take advantage of the opportunity we have at hand. We're 6-4 now so we control our own destiny. It's going to be tough, but we will be ready."

The Vikings are 2-0 in the NFC North, but both of those wins have come against Detroit, which dropped its only other NFC North game. The Vikings are 1-3 on the road and the Bears are 4-1 at Soldier Field. Green Bay is also 4-1 at Lambeau Field.

"We know the stretch we have coming up these next six weeks. Two road games are going to be brutal coming back, but we have to play. We have to stand up on the road if we want any chance to have life late here in the New Year, in January," Ponder said. "We have to stand up on the road and go win in tough places and grind our W's and play really good defense. We'll enjoy the week off and get back to business going to Chicago."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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