Players see promise in the future

The Vikings accomplished their first goal for 2008 – winning the division – and made the playoffs before bowing out in the opening round. The end was disappointing for the players, but they see even better things ahead in 2009.

The 2008 season is still fresh in the minds of the players and coaches. The Vikings fulfilled the promise that had been building since adding key component parts like Jared Allen, Bernard Berrian and Madieu Williams into the fold. The ending clearly wasn't what the team had envisioned – losing at home in the wild card round to the Philadelphia Eagles – but from owner Zygi Wilf on down, the season is being viewed as a transition from an average team to a good team to potentially a Super Bowl contender.

Wilf briefly addressed reporters this week and said he was very excited about the team, the future and the direction it is going. He wouldn't elaborate on the plans for free agency or what players and coaches will or won't be back – he deferred those decisions to Brad Childress and the personnel department – but said he saw the positive strides the team made.

The players clearly echoed those words when asked to assess the 2008 season and peer into the crystal ball for next year. Guard Steve Hutchinson, who clearly wasn't over the anger of losing a game they had a chance to win with less than 10 minutes to play, begrudgingly said the seeds have been planted over the last three years to bear fruit in 2009.

"Last year, we weren't in the playoffs, this year we were," Hutchinson said. "It's improvement, but not enough obviously. We've made improvement each of the last three years – 6-10, 8-8 and now 10-6. We're going in the right direction. We got a little taste of the playoffs, but you can't be happy with that. You have to build."

In some key situations, a lot of the Vikings players seemed a little tight in the loss to the Eagles. At critical times, passes were thrown erratically, blocks were missed, tackles were missed. A contributing factor may have been that, for some of the players, last Sunday was the first playoff game many of them had ever played.

While the Vikings came away from the game with a bitter taste in their mouths to what had been a season of building momentum, that experience could prove valuable in the coming years. Remembering that feeling can provide its own education.

"Hopefully, when we come back next year we will be a little more mature," offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "For a lot of the guys, this was their first experience in the playoffs. They got a little taste of what it feels like to be in a playoff atmosphere – the energy and everything. Hopefully, we'll get there again and go a little farther."

One of the differences between the Vikings of 2008 and the Vikings of 2007 was how they finished games. In 2007, the team lost four games in which they had the lead at halftime or well into the second half. This year, the Vikings didn't completely reverse that trend, but in games against Carolina, New Orleans, Green Bay, Detroit and New York, the team found a way to either come from behind in the second half or get the lead and hold on to it. Players view that as another turning point that wasn't there a year earlier and arrived in 2008.

"We're definitely encouraged," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We won some close games that in the past we have lost. We still left a couple close games out there this year, but for the most part we seized the moment and won those close games and (didn't) fold."

The one commonality between the '07 and '08 seasons was the start. In both seasons, the Vikings stumbled out of the gate to a 1-3 start and spent the rest of the season trying to make up for it. In 2007, they fell short with a Week 16 loss to Washington that could have locked down a wild-card berth. This year, the team was able to recover to win nine of their final 12 games, but didn't wrap up the NFC North title until no time was left on the clock in the final game. Getting off to a strong start will be imperative if the Vikings are to achieve their ultimate goal.

"We not very far away," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It's not like we have to do a big thing – a giant step. It's just a matter of having a level of consistency and not starting 1-3. We understand the importance of home-field advantage, although we didn't take advantage of it (against Philadelphia last Sunday). That's going to be a focus next year. We want to be put in a position that we can have home-field advantage."

With the large core of the 2008 team returning in 2009 – the free-agent starters are Matt Birk, Naufahu Tahi, Jim Kleinsasser and Darren Sharper – the difference between being a 10-6 division champion and a 12-4 team with home-field advantage could come down to making one or two plays late in close games – something the Vikings improved on in 2008, but could still do much better to be one of the NFL elite teams.

"We have to execute better," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We have the players on this team right now to get to the Super Bowl and win it. It's all about putting it on the field. If we continue to go out and make plays, we'll get there. We finished 10-6. The record could have been better – the loss to Indy and the loss (to Tampa Bay). We have to win close games."

The Vikings accomplished something the previous seven editions of the team could not – win a division championship. Since 2001, that position has been fought for by the Packers and Bears, while the Vikings were always on the outside looking in. With the Packers transformed from a 13-win team to a 10-loss team in one year and Chicago still looking like a team that needs a defensive or special teams touchdown to win a game, the Vikings could feel good about themselves for achieving their primary training camp goal of a division title. But with both of those teams looking a long way from being an elite team in the near future, the goal for 2009 is going to be raised. Whereas 2008 was marked with hope, 2009 will be marked with expectations.

"Being able to win the NFC North was a big accomplishment for this ball club, because it hasn't been done since it's been the NFC North," wide receiver Bobby Wade said. "For us, the next step is going deep in the playoffs. The goal won't be just to win the NFC North, but to win the NFC. Coach talked about taking advantage of having home field and we can definitely compete for that next year."

So what will the ultimate goal be for 2009? Super Bowl, home boy.

"That's our plan," defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "This offseason is going to start in April. There will be a lot of goals and that's our goal – win our division and get home field."

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