The first came in the offseason.
"I'll tell you, for our guys to have the biggest turnaround in Vikings history is a great accomplishment for our players, there's no question about it, and the organization, too," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said during a conference call on Tuesday morning. "You have to trace it back to what we did this offseason, with our coaches and players busting their tails to really come to training camp a better football team. We got a lot done in those OTAs and there wasn't a day that we looked back at once we concluded our offseason workouts that we felt like we should have did this or we should have did that. We got a lot accomplished. That fact that we had over 95 percent participation by our players throughout the offseason – in Minnesota, that's a big deal because that has never happened in my six years here. So, I trace it back to when we set the foundation in this offseason."
The Vikings used that as a springboard to a strong start, with back-to-back wins at home against San Francisco and at Detroit highlighting the 4-1 start. Then, tough times struck. When they were trounced 28-10 at Chicago on Nov. 25, the Vikings had fallen to 6-5.
That set up the second critical moment: A 23-14 loss at Green Bay on Dec. 2.
"We talked in postgame about what we had seen with our team and how we felt like after that game that we were really coming together," Frazier said. "We saw it during the game and even in the pregame, the way the guys were encouraging one another. It was a tough day for us at Lambeau but our players really stuck together during that time like I hadn't seen before, and I knew that was a good omen going forward and it turned out to be that way. We're playing more like a team than in any point in our season."
The 6-6 Vikings were on life support, given their spot in the standings (six teams were in front of them in the NFC and they were one of four teams at .500), the remaining schedule (Chicago, St. Louis, Houston and Green Bay were a combined 32-15-1) and a sputtering offense (24 points in the back-to-back losses to Chicago and Green Bay).
Rather than fall apart, the Vikings won their final four games, including Sunday's emotional shootout over the Packers, to grab the final spot in the NFC. Only Denver, Washington and Seattle take longer winning streaks into the playoffs.
A big key has been the play of the offense, in general, and quarterback Christian Ponder, in particular. During the winning streak, the Vikings are averaging 29.3 points per game. In the first 12 games, they averaged 21.8.
In 11 games as a rookie, Ponder completed 54.3 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a rating of 70.1. He went 2-8 in his 10 starts. In starting all 16 games this season, he's completed 62.1 percent with 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a rating of 81.2. The numbers haven't been gaudy – and they haven't needed to be with Adrian Peterson carrying the load -- but Ponder hasn't thrown an interception in the last three games. In five midseason losses, he had five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"I think like a lot of young quarterbacks in our league, there's a progression that you go through and it's a process," Frazier said. "For Christian, he's still growing and developing as a quarterback. The maturation we've seen over the last four weeks has been great for our team and great for our organization. I think it's just a combination of going through some adverse times, and you've seen his true character really coming to the forefront as he's battled through adversity. He's really focused in and has become a much more efficient quarterback, a better decision-maker and a better leader, as well."
Ponder was much more than a caretaker quarterback on Sunday. He converted six third-down plays through the air, including a 3-yard touchdown to make it 34-27 and a third-and-11 with a 25-yard completion on the game-winning drive.
If he can be that efficient on Saturday night, the Vikings have an excellent chance of improving to 2-0 in playoff games played at Lambeau.
"The plays he made, that's what you need to be able to do at the quarterback position to win a championship," Frazier said. "We were really able to open the playbook up. He made a ton of plays for us on third down, made plays in the red zone. He did what you want to see your quarterback do in big ball games and every game. He played at a high, high level for us."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.