When the calendar flipped over to December, there was a sense of invincibility in the air with the Vikings. Armed with a 10-1 record, they were looking for New Orleans to potentially stub its toe and put home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs back up for grabs.
As the players settle in for a day off to enjoy the Christmas holiday with their families, the question being asked now is whether the Vikings have the ability to make a Super Bowl run. Second-guessers and nay-sayers have had a field day over the last few weeks, as humbling losses to Arizona and Carolina have raise the specter of doubt in the Vikings.
The consistency that the Vikings had put in throughout the season was gone. The offense struggled. The defense eventually collapsed with poor tackling as the primary culprit – leaving many looking for an excuse. Is the team wearing down? Can they still not win against good teams on the road? Do they struggle on grass? Is there something about playing at night.
While fans and the media have been fueling the fire of panic, the Vikings say there is no reason for alarm. The problems the team had on the road have dropped their cache in NFL circles, but they are far from dead in the water for Mission Miami.
"There's no doubt that it's tough to win on the road in this league, but that's the million-dollar question – what happened in Arizona and Carolina?" kicker Ryan Longwell said. "These were the same guys that showed up against Cincinnati, but there was something missing in those other games. That's what we're trying to figure out. Whether it was momentum or whatever, we just didn't have it early in those games."
Longwell himself was willing to shoulder some of the blame. Coming into last Sunday night's game, the only field goal Longwell had missed all season was one that was blocked against San Francisco early in the season. He had been perfect other than that. But in the first quarter of last Sunday's game, a 34-yard punt return by Darius Reynaud put the Vikings offense in business on the Carolina 25-yard line with the score tied 0-0. The offense failed to move the ball deeper into scoring territory and Longwell got the call to kick a 39-yard field goal to put the first points of the game on the board. Instead, his kick hit the right upright and bounced out, keeping the score 0-0 and taking away a chance for the Vikings to seize some early momentum.
"Ironically, a lot of field goals you make in the first quarter are momentum kicks," Longwell said. "They pick up the team and put early points on the board. We missed that one and it kind of took the wind out of our sails. I was just as accountable as everybody else. It makes you realize that those first-quarter field goals are just as important as ones in the fourth quarter."
While there may be an impending sense of doom among the writers, bloggers, Tweeters and talking heads of the local media, cornerback Cedric Griffin said none of those doubts have crept into the locker room. This isn't like the defending champion Steelers going on a five-game losing streak, it's a rough patch for the team coming at a moment when there is still time to correct the problem before it's a "win or go home" situation.
"We've only got three losses this year," Griffin said. "Almost every other team in the league would be happy to have just three losses at this point of the season. We're in the playoffs. We're NFC North champs and we're looking forward to the playoffs. There is no reason for anyone to be disappointed about what we've accomplished so far."
Griffin bristled at the notion brought up by a reporter that there might be a panic going on. He emphatically said that, while it might drum up "talkability" to write or discuss contrarian topics about the recent failings of the Vikings, inside the locker room, panic isn't a word they use or display.
"There's no panic around here," Griffin said. "Maybe there's some panic among the news outlets and the media, but there's no panic by myself, the other players or the coaches. We're 11-3 and the mood around here is great. We're just trying to downplay it to you guys."
Jared Allen said the criticism the team has received has been the result of extremely poor play while in the glare of the national spotlight. But he said that how the team responds to last week's face-slap from the Panthers will be the true test for a team finally facing some adversity.
"There are always going to be critics," Allen said. "We know what kind of team we've got. We've got to get back to doing what we do. We're going to gut-check ourselves just like we bounced back from the Arizona loss and beat a very good Cincinnati team. We've got to bounce back from another embarrassing loss and we've got to go beat a pretty good Chicago team."
The players have heard much of the recent criticism, but most are philosophical about the recent malaise. Just as they have refused to dwell on winning streaks or individual victories along the way, they are just quick to move on from their losses. It isn't easy when they're still fresh in their minds, but they are convinced their destiny in the 2009 season is going to end by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February and, despite their recent woes, they are in a position to make a deep run by taking care of their business, starting Monday at Chicago – even though the game is on the road, on grass and at night.
"This team has been put together right from top to bottom," offensive lineman Artis Hicks said. "We've had some obstacles and we've stumbled a couple of times. But at the end of the day, we're still 11-3. There are a lot teams out there that would want to trade spots. As long as we reach our goals, we'll look back on this and say, ‘Hey, those were just stumbles in the process and we overcame them.' That's the bottom line."
So, as the same fans that were toasting the Vikings over Thanksgiving are nervously discussing them over Christmas ham, the subject remains the same – the expectation/hope that the team can put it all together in January for a championship run.
"We were hurt and embarrassed, but we're still a great football team," linebacker Ben Leber said. "Let's not lose sight of the accomplishments we've made and the strides we've made during the season. Let's put this blunder behind us, get back to the football we've been playing and just believe in ourselves. We've got a great football team and a great thing going on here and shouldn't forget that."
Who knows? With a win Sunday night, perhaps the champagne toast on New Year's Eve will be much more upbeat.
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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