Keys To The Season

There was much discussion of what was wrong with the Vikings last year when they failed to make the playoffs after a 6-0 start. Bad defense, costly penalties, a poor kicking game and some bad breaks were the main culprits. What can they do this year to improve?

DEFENSE: The defense should improve this year. Dontarrious Thomas, Kenechi Udeze, and Antoine Winfield are key additions from the offseason. Some of the young players that made the lineup after the mid-season swoon on defense last year should be better after getting playing time last year. Look for E.J. Henderson and Mike Nattiel to be much improved. This year's linebackers should be vastly better than last year's group, and the D-line (Udeze) and secondary (Winfield) have key additions.

KICKING: Last year's rookie kickers are gone, replaced by long-time (okay, ancient) veterans. They may not be spectacular, but the Vikings hope to avoid going on 4th downs inside the 30-yard line because their FG kicker has limited range; and a punter that can consistently handle the snap from center will be a welcome relief.

PENALTIES: The Vikes can only hope that their team will be more disciplined this year after leading the league in penalties the last two years. If this doesn't improve, you have to believe there is a problem with the coaching staff in this area.

SPREAD THE OFFENSE AROUND: The Vikings have gotten in trouble by focusing too much of their offense on Randy Moss. Great if it works, but the lack of a viable option in the passing game has stifled them at times. With Michael Bennett coming back this season, and Nate Burleson emerging at the receiver position opposite Moss, they may be able to find better balance this season. The Vikings signed Jermaine Wiggins as a pass-catching tight end, but he didn't look good in the preseason. One thing that may help the offense is the emphasis on enforcing the 5-yard contact rules this year; Minnesota has two big-play receivers in Moss and Kelly Campbell. They should both benefit.

CLOSE GAMES/COMEBACKS: The Vikings were 0-3 in games decided by a field goal or less. They have to do much better this year to have a shot at a championship season. Three of the four teams in the conference finals last year (Carolina, New England, Philly) won a vast majority of their games by slim margins. The Vikings may get better on defense and help this area, but they also need better performance from their offense when trailing. They only overcame a significant deficit one time last season, down by 10 at Detroit. For the most part, when the Vikings got behind, they stayed behind. The coaches and Daunte Culpepper need to do a better job of pulling out close games. Championship teams win games when they get outplayed form time to time, and the ability to pull out a game with a late score is absolutely necessary in the modern NFL. The Vikings have a poor record in close games over the last few years.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: It is interesting to me to see the predictions coming from the NFL experts for this season. Most of them have the Vikings winning their division, but I have seen no one predicting a Super Bowl appearance. Although neither team seems to have made significant upgrades, many experts are picking Kansas City and Seattle to play in the Super Bowl. While both KC (12-4) and the Seahawks (10-6) finished with better records than the Vikes (9-7) last year, Minnesota destroyed both of them late in the season at the Metrodome, piling up 79 points in the two games. The Vikings seem to have done a better job of improving their defensive personnel than those teams, but are not rated as high. I think the stigma of last year's second half swoon is affecting the viewpoint of the experts for this year in rating the team.

PREDICTION: I see the Vikes winning 12 or more games this season, and I predict they will play in the NFC championship game. A Super Bowl appearance/win is certainly not out of the question.

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