There is a tangible difference between the 2012 Vikings and the team that bottomed out last year, finishing with a 3-13 record and made losing a habit. The Vikings are heading into Detroit Sunday looking to go 3-1 and make a statement to the rest of the division that the guarantee most people put on the Vikings finishing last in the NFC North may be been a bit premature.
Center John Sullivan has seen it all over the last three years. In his first season as a starter, the Vikings came with an eyelash of the Super Bowl. The drop from those heights to the dismal 2011 season has provided a range of emotions for a lot of players. Getting off to a strong start has made for a palpable change in the locker room and on the practice field. The Vikings have their swagger back and they're having fun.
"Things are always better when you're winning," Sullivan said. "We're two-thirds of the way to last year's win total after three games, which feels pretty good. Things have definitely picked up. I think we have more confidence this year. We've developed at key positions. (Christian) Ponder is playing so well. We feel like we can score on offense and stop people on defense. It's business as usual. That's just how it is in the NFL."
The problems the Vikings experienced in 2011 were more frustrating to the players because, despite what their record said at the time, they knew they were a better team than the win-loss ledger depicted.
"We had so many games that could have turned on making a play here or a play there that would have made things different," Sullivan said. "It just seemed as though we found ways to lose games last year and we're finding ways to win games this year – the same type of games we didn't win last year."
After three weeks, the Vikings are 2-1. Last year, they started the season with four straight losses.
The Vikings aren't getting too full of themselves because three games does not a season make. In the NFL, fortunes can turn in a hurry and a team that is riding high in September can be dead in the water by Thanksgiving. Sullivan said that isn't lost on the Vikings and they're not looking father ahead than the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
"I know it sounds cliché, but you can only take it one game at a time in this league," Sullivan said. "We've got a couple of big home wins and have held up that end of things. Now we have to prove we can go on the road and come back with wins. If you want to win your division and make the playoffs, you have to be able to win on the road."
Sullivan's challenge this week will be as formidable as any he faces all year. He goes up against Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh, who is arguably the most dominant defensive tackle in the league with 16 sacks since 2010, tied for most in the league among defensive tackles. While Sullivan will have his hands full with Suh, he is far from alone. The entire Vikings offensive line will face a daunting challenge from a Lions defensive front that is one of the best in the NFL.
"They're good across the whole front," Sullivan said. "Obviously, Suh is a great player, but it's more than just him. They're a physical group. They try to get off the snap quick and get after the passer and they're disruptive in the run game. They've been pretty successful at it, so it will be a big challenge for our entire offensive line. It will be business as usual for us. We're going to go out there and try to be more physical and impose our will."
The Vikings' struggles over the last two years have been well-documented. It's been more than two years since they won a division game – the last win coming against Detroit on Sept. 26, 2010 at the Metrodome. The conventional wisdom was that, given the youth movement afoot with the Vikings, they would struggle this season as well. But, as Sullivan is quick to point out, what happened in 2010 and 2011 has little bearing on what will happen this season and the Vikings are prepared to write their own destiny.
"A lot of people look to the past to make determinations on teams in the present," Sullivan said. "But when you look around this locker room, there are a lot of guys here that weren't part of that 2009 team or part of the team that won three games last year. Every team is different. We are a much different team this year and we have a different outlook on the season. We've got off to a good start and our goal now is to just keep that positive roll going. The NFL is a game of momentum and we're trying to build some of that here. There's a long way to go in the season, but we've put ourselves in a position to succeed. Now it's up to us to keep that going."
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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