It all comes down to this.
The Vikings have played 14 games this season and, after digging themselves a hole few thought they could extricate themselves from, with just two games to play, the Vikings are in control of their destiny – for better or for worse.
With five straight victories, the Vikings have become the darling of the NFL. USA Today's "Sports Weekly" magazine this week has Adrian Peterson on the front cover with the caption "The New Purple People Eaters." The national press has got on the Vikings bandwagon, even though most of their newly found staunch supporters likely haven't seen much more than highlights of a dozen of the Vikings' games.
Suddenly, there is a groundswell around the Vikings and they notice the increased attention.
"It's not too often that you see a team playing in prime time twice in a row," defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "People are taking notice of the Vikings and that's something we have to live up to."
With wins over likely playoff teams in San Diego Chargers and the New York Giants, as well as a sweep of defending NFC champion Chicago Bears, the Vikings have established themselves as a team to be taken seriously. The hardest part for the Vikings has been to avoid the adulation that is suddenly coming their way. Almost to a man, the "one game at a time" clichés have flown out of their mouths with shocking regularity and even coach Brad Childress has claimed not to know what the word "playoffs" mean – this coming from a man who does the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in pen. (He has since made a point to come up with a word to befuddle reporters – we know, real hard task – twice this week.
But, it would seem that the "we're not looking beyond (fill in opponent name)" mantra is legitimate.
"That's the great thing about this team," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "When we were struggling at 2-5 or 3-6 – whatever it was – there wasn't any dissention in the locker room. There wasn't any finger pointing or blowups in the locker room. We knew we were a better team than our record showed. We've been winning, but there hasn't been a change on the other way either. Nobody is feeling full of themselves and getting cocky. Everyone has been on an even-keel and the success we knew we could have has started coming our way."
As it pertains to their current winning streak, the Vikings' next opponent may be their most important. The Washington Redskins trail the Vikings by just a game and, with a win, the Vikings can officially eliminate both Washington and Carolina (who somehow remain alive despite a 6-8 record and two of the teams in front of them playing each other) and perhaps even push their way into the No. 1 wild card spot with a loss by the New York Giants.
The Vikings know the Redskins from the opening game last season, when the Vikings went into a hostile environment and came away with a season-opening road win to give Childress his first win as an NFL head coach. They know that the Redskins would love nothing more than to return the favor at the Metrodome.
"They're a very good team," center Matt Birk. "You don't take anyone lightly in this league. Teams that think they have games won just because they're at home or just because they've won a few games in a row are teams that end up losing. We've remained focused on the team at hand each week and we don't look past anyone or ahead. None of us talk about playoffs. That's something for (the media) to talk about or write about. We haven't clinched anything."
The gravity of Sunday's game is clear. If the Vikings win, they're in the driver's seat for the playoffs. If they lose, they will need a lot of help – as in the Giants losing twice and likely both Washington and New Orleans losing. While the team isn't discussing the playoffs, it would seem to most that their playoffs started about a month ago with a one-and-out prospect that is at five games and counting.
"The atmosphere around these games is great," linebacker Ben Leber said. "You had a Monday night game with Chicago that everyone was watching – your family, friends, the other players, everybody. Now we have another game that everyone will be watching. It's exciting for us and gets everyone pumped up. You'd have to be crazy not to get excited about that."
With the Redskins coming to town, the game will mark as a homecoming for Fred Smoot, the disgraced former Viking who was the ringleader of the boat scandal that led to the firing of Mike Tice. While not getting the kind of publicity the return of Daunte Culpepper to the Metrodome engendered, Smoot will be a key to the game. With the Redskins likely to employ the "eight-in-the-box" defensive scheme most teams have taken against the tandem of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, Smoot will likely be single-covering Vikings wide receivers most of the day. While he was hit-and-miss with the Vikings, he became a star in Washington and has returned to the same level of play as he had before coming to the Vikings.
"Fred is a great player and the guys on our team know that," said cornerback Cedric Griffin, who took over for Smoot at midseason in 2006. "I learned a lot from him and he was very helpful in teaching about reads on receivers and techniques to use on them. There's going to be focus on him, but there will be focus on me and Marcus (McCauley). In a game like this, every play is going to be big and we all have to bring our ‘A' game to the table."
If this year's game is anything like the opener of 2006, it will have a lot of fans for both teams pulling their hair out. Last year's meeting between the Vikings and Redskins was a nail-biter throughout. The Vikings opened the game with a touchdown drive, but missed the extra point and led 6-0. The Redskins rattled off 13 straight points before the Vikings drove the length of the field in 1:05 to get a Longwell field goal as the first half ended to cut the deficit to 13-9. Longwell would hit the game-winning field goal with one minute remaining to give the Vikings the win and he expects to see much of the same.
"There's a little familiarity from that game last year," Longwell said. "There are a lot of players on both teams that played in that game and it was a tough game. Both teams have strong running games and strong defenses, so we knew coming into that game last year that it was probably going to come down to one series or even one play to determine the winner. It did. I'm expecting we could see the same thing Sunday."
The only difference is that the loser of last year's game was simply 0-1 to start the season. A loss this time around could mark the end of the playoff run for the team that comes out on the short end, making every big play and every mistake magnified even more.
Vikings Acknowledge Magnitude of Game
Viking Update Top Stories
Cutler returns, praising Vikings defenseBears QB Jay Cutler is returning to action and expects some rust, but he has immense respect for the Minnesota Vikings defense.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 2:43 PM
VIDEO: Bradford breaks down offensive issuesWhile Sam Bradford has generally had an impressive start to his time with the Minnesota Vikings, that didn't translate last week. He discusses the offensive struggles against the…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 2:33 PM
VIDEO: Zimmer blasts report, talks BearsMinnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer defends his character after an erroneous report that was later corrected went viral, but Zimmer settled in to talk Bears mostly on Thursday.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 1:39 PM
Vikings look to turn the pageComing off their first loss of the season, the Minnesota Vikings are looking to shake the label of being soft and get back to their winning ways at Soldier Field Monday, a place…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 12:28 PM