Looking ahead is natural for fans of the 2016 Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings are 4-0 and currently the flavor of the month of NFL analysts who a month ago buried them. Can they sustain? The quadrant theory of the NFL says that the worst is behind them if they don't sustain any more catastrophic injuries

In the NFL, coaches and players are creatures of habit. The Minnesota Vikings are in the same boat as every other team in the league. They keep their focus solely on the opponent in front of them. They don’t spend much time looking back.

Fortunately, the rest of us have that capability.

One thing coaches tend to do as a group, however, is break seasons down into four-game quadrants. They analyze the results at the quarter-pole and determine whether change is needed or to stay the course.

Given all the drama and critical losses the Vikings have sustained through the first four games of the 2016 season, the fact they have come out it 4-0 despite catastrophic injuries on the offensive side of the ball and key defensive injuries is nothing short of unexpected by anyone outside of Winter Park.

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After all, when you do what coaches have admitted is done – break down seasonal progress four games at a time for the purposes of assessment – the odds of the Vikings being in the position they’re currently in was far from assured.

It was assumed that the Vikings had the potential to win double-digit games and make a return to the playoffs, primarily because of a smothering defense Vikings fans saw on a weekly basis, but garnered little national attention and, even when it did, the focus was on head coach Mike Zimmer – not the players who were making the noise.

Harrison Smith and Linval Joseph garnered some league-wide respect last year because they earned it. They weren’t lauded merely out of respect for their body of work.

But, for the most part, guys like Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn were flying under the national radar.

Now, the same national talking heads that would only talk about Zimmer’s influence on defensive players – “cornerback whisperer” and the like – are starting to take a critical look at game film (perhaps for the first time looking at the full body of work) and they have figured out that the Vikings have had something really good going on defense for some time and it’s bearing fruit now.

When the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater, it wasn’t like New Orleans losing Drew Brees, Green Bay losing Aaron Rodgers or Pittsburgh losing Ben Roethlisberger. Minnesota isn’t a team predicated on scoring 30 points to win. They’re predicated on allowing 20 or fewer points and asking the offense simply to score 21 or more to win. More than a couple of times, the defense and special teams helped get that mission accomplished.

Many saw the trade for Sam Bradford as a move of desperation to save a potential Super Bowl season. Perhaps it was because NFL executives have always seen the talent in Bradford. St. Louis made him the No. 1 pick in the draft and Philadelphia thought enough of him to trade Nick Foles and a second- and fourth-round pick for him.

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But, as the coaching staff reviews the first quadrant of the season, the thing that makes the trade seem worthwhile is  people now believe after Bradford’s first three starts as a Viking resulted in wins over Green Bay, Carolina and the Giants?

Even at full strength, it was hard for someone sans purple face paint to predict the 2016 Vikings would come out of the gate at 4-0.

Given the adversity they have faced to date, that prediction seemed even more improbable because, if you grade out the quadrants – even with the benefit of hindsight – the first four were the worst four.

Quadrant No. 2? That includes Houston, at Philadelphia (with two weeks to prepare for rookie Carson Wentz), at Chicago and Detroit.

What would the record prediction be for those four opponents? It might be difficult to find two losses in that group, leaving 3-1 or 4-0 as the likely result.

Quadrant No. 3? That includes at Washington, Arizona, at Detroit and Dallas. It can be argued the two most difficult opponents would be at home and none of them strikes the kind of fear Green Bay and Carolina already could have.

Even naysayers could project 2-2 as a worst-case scenario. Even under the worst of projectable conditions, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Vikings at 9-3 through 12 games.

What that potential record does is make Quadrant No. 4 the difference between January football beyond New Year’s Day 2017 being inevitable in Minnesota.

The final four for the Vikings regular season is at Jacksonville, Indianapolis, at Green Bay and Chicago.

The only game in which the Vikings will potentially be an underdog is at Green Bay.

The simple reality of the first four games of the season is that they’re done and the Vikings have banked four wins. That many consecutive wins in the NFL are hard to come by and the Vikings have walked off the field every time on the right end of the scoreboard – twice at home and twice on the road.

That’s four of the 10 wins needed to likely earn a playoff spot, four of 11 wins likely needed to win the division and four of 12 wins likely needed to earn home field advantage in the playoffs.

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The Vikings aren’t looking beyond Houston. As far as they’re concerned, the mantra for this week is “Houston, you have a problem.” For the rest of us, we can take the end of the first quad of the season to do a little simple math and project forward for the final 12 games.

6-6 likely earns a playoff spot.

7-5 likely wins the NFC North.

8-4 or better makes sure the self-proclaimed People’s Stadium has people in it in mid- to late-January.

Get your popcorn ready. It’s going to be an interesting ride and deserved of snacks.

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