Throughout the course of the Vikings' run for the postseason in 2009, a lot has been made of the overall success the team has enjoyed – bolstered by stars on both sides of the ball and winning consistently.
Although the Vikings are making a point not to look too far ahead or make comparisons to things they did well last year to win the NFC North title, they are using the fact that Sunday's opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, are the defending NFC champions. They return to University of Phoenix Stadium just shy of a year removed from a 35-14 pounding they handed the Cardinals on the road last year.
That game seemed to be a turning point for the Vikings, who had built something of a bad reputation for being a good team at home and awful on the road. It was something that extended from the Dennis Green era through Mike Tice and into the regime of Brad Childress. To reach the status of one of the league's elite teams – the type that can win 12 or more games and get home-field advantage for the playoffs – winning on the road has been essential. It has been something the Vikings have consistently not been able to achieve for more than a decade.
As hard as it might be to believe, the Vikings had a record of 3-5 on the road every year from 2003-08 – a span of six consecutive seasons. The last time the Vikings had a winning record on the road was in 1998. The team is looking to change that perception of them being road losers because, after a while, it starts to creep into the back of your mind that something will go wrong when away from the friendly confines of the Metrodome.
"We couldn't win on the road, we couldn't win on grass, we used to hear it all," offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "I don't know what that had to do with anything – being outside or playing on grass. I think we just have a lot more confidence and it shows up, whether we're at home or playing on the road."
The Vikings' turnaround started late last season. This year, the Vikings are 4-1 on the road. Only three teams in the league are better – the Colts (6-0), the Saints (5-0) and the Cardinals (5-1). Dating back to last season, after more than a decade of futility, the Vikings have won seven of their last nine road games and have begun to look forward to taking their show on the road.
"We like playing on the road because everyone is rooting against us," defensive end Ray Edwards said. "We love that as a defensive line. It pumps us up. You can shut people up that way. You shut their team down and they have to be quiet and sit on their hands. We're going in to play the champs – they won the NFC Championship last year and went to the Super Bowl. They're the champs right now. We just got to try to take their title."
Keeping their winning ways intact may be as difficult Sunday as it has been all season. Of their four road wins, three have come against hapless Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. To date, the Vikings have played only two upper-tier teams on the road – Pittsburgh and Green Bay. The Cardinals will be the third and, unlike the last two times the Vikings have played Arizona, where they have been able to get them to abandon their running game very early, the defense is expecting to see a much different approach this time around.
"You play to your strengths," linebacker Ben Leber said. "In years past, for them that has been their passing game. But now they're happy with their two guys they have in their running game and Coach (Ken) Whisenhunt is installing more of a Pittsburgh-style of offense that mixes both the pass and the run depending on the opponent and the situation. A balanced offense makes you even more dangerous."
While both the Packers and Steelers had their share of strengths, they also had some weaknesses. To hear some of the Vikings player talk, the Cardinals may pose the biggest challenge to date for the Vikings and clearly the most daunting challenge since the Pittsburgh game in October.
"They do a lot of good things," guard Artis Hicks said. "They've got one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL (Kurt Warner) and, in my opinion, the best receiver in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald. Anquan Boldin is a great receiver in his own right. They're running the ball this year pretty good when compared to previous years and have an offensive line that has played together all of the last two seasons. Their defense line is much improved too. (Darnell) Dockett is disrupting things and getting after the quarterback. As a team, they have 32 sacks. They have ball hawks like Adrian Wilson at safety, which is like having another linebacker on the field. When you put all those things together, it's not hard to see why they have a good record and are the defending NFC champs."
The NFL was intrigued enough with this matchup that it kicked New England and Miami out of the Sunday night slot to open the game for the country to watch the Vikings and Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. The rest of the NFL world will be watching, but, considering their strong start to the season and having already had noon games pushed to 3:15 starts to get more of a national audience, the Vikings know that they are one of the darlings of 2009 that is being marketed as a team fans should watch prior to the playoffs. NBC was known for years on Thursday night for its "Must-See TV" lineup. The Vikings are looking to make Sunday night destination television. While they aren't ready to anoint themselves as one of the elite teams in the league, a win over Arizona Sunday night would give them five road wins for the first time in 11 years and propel them even farther in the national consciousness.
Being a prime-time player comes with the territory when you have a team as strong as the Vikings, but they're getting used to the attention and it won't be a distraction from keeping their eyes off of their ultimate goal.
"We've been under the microscope for a while," tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said. "Moving this game to Sunday night doesn't mean anything to us. We're starting to get used to it and are getting acclimated to it. We know everybody is watching us. We're playing well and they're starting to compare us to the Saints and all that junk and hoopla. We'll wait and see how it unfolds in the future. We're not going to let the pats on back get to us. We've got work to do."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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