Sunday slant: Turnaround starts in division

The Vikings are being thrown bouquets nationally, but forging a winner for the first time since 2011 starts with reversing a brutal NFC North record in recent years.

So, the Minnesota Vikings are the trendy pick to be one of the four or five teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year to reverse their fortunes, are they?

Teddy Bridgewater said it best: Let’s wait and see the team prove it. That’s good advice, and something the most veteran starter on the team agreed with when asked this spring, too.

“You can’t lead me to those questions. Nobody is anointed right now,” Greenway wisely answered in June when we asked him how good the Vikings can be after Bridgewater’s rookie season. “The reality is you can be as good as you want to be on paper and everybody can talk about how much talent you have on the roster and it’s B.S. … It’s a matter of getting into September and getting to Sundays and how you play on Sundays. You can have as good a roster as you want, but if you’re not performing on Sundays it doesn’t matter. Yeah, it looks good, sounds good, feels good, but we’ll see how it goes comes September.”

Leave it to the straight-talking Greenway to tell it like it is. The Vikings have proved only that they were two wins better last year than the season before.

Sure, there is reason for hope. Bridgewater should take the next step, although even Drew Brees cautioned on that assumption.

“It’s kind of a trap, a little bit, especially if you have success your rookie year. I think the tendency, human nature, is that you relax a little bit and feel like you’ve kind of arrived,” Brees said when we asked him at the Super Bowl about Bridgewater’s second season. “That’s not the case. This game is so difficult and there’s always something to prove; there’s always another challenge around the corner.”

Bridgewater doesn’t appear to the type to relax on his rookie accomplishments, which were many. But there are other reasons for hope. Adrian Peterson is returning. Charles Johnson emerged as a legitimate receiver. Kyle Rudolph is returning at tight end, along with several injured offensive linemen and linebacker Anthony Barr. And two important cornerbacks, Terence Newman and Trae Waynes, were added, along with linebacker Eric Kendricks.

There are plenty of feel-good reasons for optimism surrounding the 2015 Vikings. Soak it up.

But if the Vikings are going to truly take that next step and challenge the current Super Bowl favorites, the Green Bay Packers, for the division or a wild card spot, it will have to start close to home.

The Vikings, to put it bluntly, have been relatively brutal when it comes to their success where it counts most with the team they play most – in the NFC North.

Historically, the Vikings have been good inside their division. All total, they have a 172-143-6 combined record against the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, but the Packers are the big blemish on the record. All totaled, the Vikings are 48-57-2 against them, the only NFC North team to own a winning record against the Vikings since 1961.

But the numbers get bleak when put in recent context. Since Brett Favre’s effectiveness vacated him in 2010 and the Vikings have struggled – until last year, anyway – to find a serviceable replacement for him, the Vikings have a losing record against every one of those NFC North opponents.

Even against Detroit, whom the Vikings have historically owned, the Vikings are 4-6 since 2010.

Against the Bears, who fell on hard times last year, they are 3-7 since 2010.

The Vikings, with Favre at his vengeful best, beat the Packers in both 2009 meetings, but Minnesota owns a 1-9-1 record against Green Bay since 2010.

If the Vikings are going to post a winning record in 2015, it will have to start by winning more division games. Last year, they were 1-5 in the division, their only win coming in the season finale against the Bears in a 13-9 clunker without some of the Vikings’ best players – no Brandon Fusco, Phil Loadholt, Peterson, Barr or Greenway.

Maybe it can be viewed as a positive that Zimmer was able to construct a 7-9 season with only a 1-5 record against the NFC North, but that’s the record that has grind most on the perfectionist coach.

In addition to the return of the missing players last year, the second season in the offensive and defensive systems should help.

“Oh my goodness, the comfort level is so much different than what we had. At this point last year our heads were spinning. We were trying to figure out which way was up,” Greenway said in June. “I think now we’re so much more comfortable. Still there’s a ton of mistakes being made and that’s just kind of OTA time, but you realize that we’re so far ahead knowing that going into training camp we’re going to be ready to play and make this thing better.”

As usual, no player will be more important to that turnaround than Bridgewater in his second NFL season.

“I think Teddy’s focus should be on just constant improvement, being a great leader, both with what he says but more importantly with the way that he carries himself and how he works,” Brees said. “That will speak volumes for his team and put him in the best position to succeed.”

If that’s the case, and there is no reason to doubt Bridgewater’s commitment, then perhaps their record can be more reflective of the 3-2 record they assembled in the final five games of the season than the 7-9 record that encompassed the whole season, or the 1-5 record against NFC North teams.

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