The "easy" part of the Minnesota Vikings' schedule is complete.
They are 6-4. They put themselves in the playoff conversation, although recent losses to NFC playoff contenders Tampa Bay and Seattle will put the Vikings in a tiebreaking bind.
But coming off a 3-13 disaster in 2011 and using the first 10 games of the 2012 season to double their win total from last year has given renewed hope in Minnesota after the players returned from their bye week.
"I think everybody is focused, excited to be back. I think the sense of urgency is where it needs to be at, from the standpoint of what we have ahead of us. I mean, look at the way the division is playing out," defensive end Jared Allen said. "10-6 might not be good enough if Green Bay stays (hot). But these next three games, we have a lot riding on it."
The Vikings had the toughest second-half schedule in the NFL, one that will have them playing essentially playoff football in late November and December. Five of their last six games are against teams currently well-placed in the playoff picture. Meanwhile, the Vikings will almost have to come out of this season-ending stretch with at least a .500 record to have a chance to be in the playoffs.
Currently, they are the projected eighth seed in the NFC in a six-team playoff format in the conference. The aforementioned losses to Tampa Bay and Seattle, who are both 6-4 like the Vikings, have them on the outside looking to move up and in.
"The overall scheme of things, I think everybody's focus is ‘Hey, it's a six-game season. Let's go out, everybody's fresh.' The coaches mentioned that," Allen said. "The bye week, where there were no incidents, everybody's back healthy and strong. So I think everybody is focused."
Four of the Vikings' remaining six games are against division rivals Green Bay and Chicago. Both of them are 7-3. They also face the AFC-leading Houston Texans (9-1) and one playoff non-factor in the St. Louis Rams (3-6).
"It is an opportunity for us and we know it's going to be tough. That's what you live for," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "You live for the second half of the season to be able to control your own destiny and to be able to make a play for the playoffs and that's exactly what we have in our hands. We've got to be fully focused on what we're doing and handle it one week at a time. It's going to be fun. It's fun in November and December when you still have the playoffs at stake."
Phrases like "control our own destiny" and "opportunity" were prevalent around Winter Park on Monday. It is a long way from last year, when the Vikings were 2-8 at this point in the season and talking about the variety of ways they lost leads and how they were going to try to keep their motivation for the remaining games in the season, despite knowing the playoffs weren't a possibility.
Brutal schedule or not, after two losing seasons, the players are happy to be in contention.
"We are in position to control our own destiny, and that's all you can ask for is to have the opportunity to win football games and get to where we need to get to," Allen said. "Right now we're 2-0 in the division, which is phenomenal. And we have our division coming up. We have three straight division games. That could easily determine where we're sitting."
With Chicago's loss on Monday night, the Vikings are only one game out of first place in the division. The Bears and Packers both sit at 7-3, and the Vikings play each of them twice. Three of those four divisional games will occur over the next three weeks.
It starts Sunday in Chicago, where the Vikings haven't won since 2007, but there is a slow build of confidence among the players that maybe they can be playoff contenders. That confidence would be boosted with a tough divisional road win.
"It would be huge," Allen said. "And you got to take every game for what it is, and what they are. I mean, anybody would be dumb not to say this isn't a huge game for us. Again, it's not a make-or-break game, but it's a dang crucial game for where we're trying to get."
The Vikings had the first 10 games of the season to get a young roster playing together. Rookies are making vital contributions on offense (LT Matt Kalil, TE Rhett Ellison and now WR Jarius Wright), defense (Harrison Smith and Josh Robison) and special teams (Blair Walsh).
Now it's time to figure out if they are ahead of the curve or still building. With four division-contending games in front of them and a chance at the playoffs, the next six games are an immense measuring stick.
"(The bye) got us healthy and got our energy back to go into these last six games and be able to handle these division games," Ponder said. "We know that we're 2-0 in the division now. We've got four left and we've got to do well against those teams."
If they do, they will be playoff-tested when the postseason arrives.
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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