With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Two seasons ago, the Detroit Lions came out of nowhere to slap together a 10-6 record and surprising playoff berth. A year later, faced with a tougher schedule and some adversity, they unraveled, finishing 4-12.
Can the upstart Minnesota Vikings avoid a similar post-Cinderella run swoon?
Fairly or not, the perception surrounding the Vikings is that this is a nice team ... that's not going to challenge Green Bay in the North and may even slip behind Chicago or an improved Detroit squad. And while it is hard to pick the Vikings to leapfrog the Packers for an NFC North crown, that opinion is a disservice to a Minnesota team that has plenty of talent.
The Vikings' chances start, of course, with superhuman running back Adrian Peterson. Minnesota has upped the talent around its star on offense for 2013. The Vikings also have added several pieces to a defense that finished in the middle of the pack last season.
Will the additions be enough to turn Minnesota from a one-year wonder into a perennial contender?
• Biggest storyline: Christian Ponder.
Until Ponder either breaks through to become more than an average quarterback or is benched, this probably will stay the Vikings' top storyline, now that Adrian Peterson has bionic-manned his way through a full season.
Now in his third NFL season, Ponder continues to walk the line between mediocrity and being a solid NFL quarterback. Last season, with Peterson nearly breaking the league's rushing mark, Ponder was just good enough to get Minnesota into the playoffs with a Week 17 win. He then sat out that postseason appearance with an injury.
Just once in 2012 did Ponder throw for more than two touchdowns in a game -- Week 17 vs. Green Bay. He also had three outings in which he threw for less than 100 yards (Minnesota somehow went 2-1 in those games). On the flip side, he also did not throw more than two INTs in any game and his 81.2 QB rating sat just outside the top 20 for starting quarterbacks.
Nothing to get too excited about, nothing to hate all that much. But the Vikings did not bring in veteran Matt Cassel to sit on the sidelines and offer guidance. He's a Viking now for one reason: to push Ponder for the starting job. If Ponder proves incapable of getting the job done early in 2013, the Vikings may pull the trigger on a switch.
As phenomenal as Peterson has been, he's 28 years old at a position with a short shelf life. Minnesota does not want to waste his prime years with a subpar quarterback.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Outside linebacker.
Chad Greenway, a 16-game starter last season, and 10-game starter Erin Henderson appear to be locked in at two of the Vikings' three linebacker spots. Marvin Mitchell, mostly a special-teams ace through four seasons in New Orleans and two with Minnesota, may have clamped down the third.
The job looked to be Desmond Bishop's after the Vikings signed him this offseason. He's been unable to stay healthy due to a groin injury, though, which comes following a 2012 season he lost to a torn hamstring. So Mitchell's competition may not come from him so much as from Gerald Hodges and Tyrone McKenzie.
Unless Bishop unexpectedly climbs back to the top of the depth chart, the Vikings will have an inexperienced player on the first-team defense here.
• New face, new place: Greg Jennings, WR.
If Jennings makes half as much noise in the regular season as he has smack-talking Aaron Rodgers this offseason, the Vikings' offense might ascend to new heights. Jennings has waged a one-way war of words with his former quarterback this offseason, adding even more heat to a Packers-Vikings rivalry that was front and center during Week 17 and the wild-card round last year.
But the Vikings need Jennings to be a lot more than just their speaker of the house. Jennings is the new go-to receiver in town, with Percy Harvin now running routes for the Seahawks. Along with high-upside rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, Jennings' job is to replace Harvin and give Ponder more flexibility in the passing game. The Vikings were an Adrian Peterson solo act last season when Harvin was hurt; the goal is to be more well-rounded in 2013.
• Impact rookie: Xavier Rhodes, CB.
Minnesota added a pair of rookies in the draft who figure to play key roles: Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. While Floyd provides depth up front, Rhodes is expected to crack the starting lineup at cornerback, with Chris Cook opposite him and Josh Robinson in the slot.
A hamstring injury slowed Rhodes' progress in the preseason. Upon hitting the field against Buffalo, though, he quickly made his presence felt, jumping a Kevin Kolb pass and tipping it to give Jamarca Sanford an interception. That's the kind of aggressive playmaking the Vikings are expecting from Rhodes this season -- more so because they need Robinson to drop into the nickel CB role vacated by Antoine Winfield after a standout 2012 season.
• Looking at the schedule: The start of the year either will serve as a rude welcome to 2013 or a statement-making stretch for Minnesota.
The Vikings open with back-to-back road games in Detroit and Chicago, helping to set the NFC North table.
After that, they're home for three games (with a bye sandwiched in) against Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Carolina. Should Minnesota come out of that five-game, season-opening stretch at 3-2 or better, they can start dreaming of a repeat playoff berth.
Anything less than 3-2, on the other hand, will put Minnesota in a tight spot, because the last 11 weeks of the season feature home games with Washington and all three NFC North teams, plus trips to take on the Giants, Cowboys, Seahawks, Packers, Ravens and Bengals. Even two wins in those final six road contests would be an accomplishment. The schedule will prove what everyone has been wondering since last year: Is this Minnesota team really a contender in the NFC or was 2012 a Peterson-fueled mirage?