For a team that started December looking nearly invincible, the Vikings start January looking, well, "vincible."
After dropping three of their last four games, the Vikings no longer control their own playoff destiny. They already are in the postseason, but the goal of getting a first-round bye to give the players the rest they could surely use, the Vikings need a win Sunday and a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Sunday to assure the bye week. Otherwise, they will be playing next week against either Dallas or Green Bay at the Metrodome.
While the team doesn't have the playoff swagger fans saw for the first three months of the season, there is no sense of panic in the locker room. They know the road ahead of them is going to require stringing wins together to get to the Super Bowl – whether it's two or three. The recent struggles haven't taken away their postseason invitation and the team expects that they can make what has gone wrong recently right before the bell sounds for the one-and-out playoff tournament.
"You don't win them all," defensive end Jared Allen said. "You take it in. You digest it. You break down the film. You correct the mistakes and you go out and play another week. We've got a game with the Giants and that's all we're focused on. It's not like anything catastrophic has happened. Everything is fixable. It comes down to making the plays you're supposed to make and making tackles on the defensive side. We have to tackle better. That's the bottom line."
One of the advantages the Vikings have is a mindset that they have maintained throughout the season – don't get hung up on what has been done in the past (good or bad) and remain focused on only what is ahead of them.
"The thing that this team has done well all year is just worry about what's in front of us," kicker Ryan Longwell said. "We've obviously had a tough stretch this last month, but we need to get some momentum and be mentally ready to play next week (in the wild card round of the playoffs). If we get the bye, we'll take that. I think it's important to play well this week and build momentum."
There has been some speculation that the letdown the last two weeks coincided with the Vikings wrapping up their second straight NFC North Division title. With the season-long battle to win the division over, perhaps the Vikings took their foot off the gas. Allen was the first to shoot holes in that theory, saying there's no validity to putting two and two together and coming up with that answer.
"I can't speak for anyone else, but, for me, no it didn't," Allen said. "This is just part of football – part of the season. You have ebbs and flows. We were riding high for a while and now we're experiencing a little adversity, but we have great character on this team. We're going to get it fixed."
Linebacker Ben Leber agreed, saying that the Vikings problems have come in all three phases, but none of them are insurmountable or not able to be corrected.
"It's totally fixable," Leber said. "There's not one easy solution. If there was, we would have fixed it already. I think it just comes down to a mindset and attitude – those things individually we can correct and as a team we can correct. We're excited for this weekend."
The Vikings faced a similar situation a year ago in Week 17. Needing a win to assure that would win their first division title since the 2000 season, the Vikings played the Giants to a 20-19 victory that put them over the top. This will be the third straight year the Vikings will play the Giants and that familiarity will give them a little bit of shorthand with a team that is becoming more of a rival each year. Having them as the regular-season finale for the second straight year gives some of the players a sense of déjà vu.
"We know them, we understand their schemes and the situation for us is the same," Leber said. "We're still fighting and have a lot to fight for. We're approaching this week just like we did last year."
The Vikings aren't getting the sense that their season has headed in the wrong direction. If they needed any motivation, all they have to do is harken back to the 2008 Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings beat them senseless late in the regular season, yet Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and a much-improved defense rectified those problems and turned things around in the postseason.
"It's a brand new season," Allen said. "You win and you stay. Look at the Cardinals last year. They went on a losing streak toward the end (of the regular season). They cleaned it up and they made some noise. They were one throw away from winning the Super Bowl."
The key to the return to the momentum the Vikings had been consistently building from September through November is making the plays that they so consistently did through the first 11 games of the season. If that happens, success will return.
"There isn't anything we can't accomplish if we execute and make plays," middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley said. "We just need to get our swagger back and that starts Sunday with the Giants."
While the Vikings no longer have their playoff destiny in their own hands, they remain positive about getting some positive momentum going in their direction. That starts with beating New York Sunday. The rest will take care of itself. Allen said if they get the No. 2 seed, so be it. If they don't, they'll be ready to strap on their helmets next week and make their Mission to Miami a three-game endeavor.
"I'm not even focused on that," Allen said. "As long as we're in the tournament, that's all I care about. When you've got to play and who you've got to play, I don't care about any of that."
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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