GREEN BAY—With a month to play in the season, the Minnesota Vikings are more than just spoilers, they're contenders for the NFC North title. At 6-5, the Vikings can pull into a second-place tie with the Packers with a win at Lambeau Field this Sunday.
"We play each other in the second half of the season almost every other week, so it'll clear itself up real soon. It seems like whoever can win games on the road will be a major factor in this race," Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier told Packers media on Wednesday when asked for his thoughts on the final five weeks of the season.
It's a finishing stretch of schedule that'll see the Packers play against NFC North foes four times, while three of the Vikings' final five games will be within the division. Two of those three games will be against the Packers. Clearly, the two teams' postseason fates will be determined by the outcomes of those games.
For the 7-4 Packers, playing for the division title in December is as expected. For the Vikings, a team coming off a 3-13 season with a young quarterback and a star running back in a comeback season from knee reconstruction, this was not expected. Nobody predicted the Vikings would be playoff contenders in December.
"He's just special," Frazier said of running back Adrian Peterson, the league's leading rusher and the player that has led the Vikings through this resurrection season.
"I'm really amazed. All of us were hoping he'd come back and be a good player, but to come back and in Week 13 be the best running back in the NFL in terms of yards, it's an amazing feat when you consider the impact an ACL can have on a guy's career, especially a running back," Frazier added.
Peterson leads the league with 1,236 yards rushing. He's responsible for a third of the Vikings' yards from scrimmage, has the third most rushing attempts in the league and, by far, the league's top yards per carry average, 5.8.
One of the league's unsolved mysteries is: How has he done it?
"Just staying focused on my goals and working hard. The main thing is just believing; that's the main ingredient. Going through this ACL is the most serious injury I've had. It made me hungrier than I already was. I definitely learned how to take it to a different level," Peterson said.
He's one half of the Vikings' recovery. The other half is on defense, where one of the league's worst secondaries a year ago is now one of its best, on a defense ranked 11th overall.
The one piece of the puzzle still needing to be put into place is at quarterback, where second-year man Christian Ponder continues to show promise. Ponder has thrown 13 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and has an 82.0 passer rating, but the Vikings' passing game is a lowly 30th in the league in total yards. Of course, most would say the Vikings lack passing yardage for a good reason: Peterson is running with the ball, and rightfully so.
"He's made tremendous improvement in a lot of areas. He's much more confident as a quarterback. He's still growing; he's still a young quarterback. The growth should bode well for us in the future," Frazier said of Ponder.
Ponder would be greatly aided by the return of star receiver Percy Harvin, who's missed time with an ankle injury.
"We're all hoping we get him back. We need him. Percy is in a league of his own. It definitely affects how we call plays," Frazier said.
Translation: No Harvin, more Peterson.
The Packers' defensive game plan will likely focus on more Peterson. Can they stop him? The Packers didn't stop Peterson in the first meeting between the two teams last year, as Peterson rushed for 175 yards and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry.
"This offense starts by running the ball. When we match up against those guys, we have to beat them," Peterson said.
He was asked how he would tackle Adrian Peterson.
"I don't know," he said, then pausing. "That's a good question. I've never been asked that question before. It's a good one. I'll tweet it."
Peterson is one of the great unanswered questions of this season. How has he done it? Additional coverage - Nov. 28