Just like a game, the season can be broken down into quarters, and those first four games offer an evaluation period to really understand who you are as a team and what the next 12 games will look like. It doesn’t mean it can’t get any better or any worse, but it clearly defines the level of expectations and provides an identity for the team moving forward.
There have been a couple of surprises in the first quarter of the 2012 season, but the Vikings and Cardinals won’t be sneaking up on anyone anymore. According to the media, myself included, these two teams may as well have been digging their own graves leading up to the season. Now they are a combined 7-1 and both sit at the top of their respective divisions.
It is time to start believing. This is why…
It is a quarterback-driven league, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a quarterback that puts up 300 yards and three touchdowns every game to be competitive. In the case of the Vikings, they have a quarterback that takes what the defense gives him and maintains possession by not turning the ball over. Christian Ponder is the only starting quarterback in the NFL that has yet to throw an interception and heading into the game, his 70.1 completion percentage was good for second in the NFL. While he wasn’t as sharp on Sunday against the Lions, he helped his team snap an 11-game losing streak to NFC North opponents.
According to my booth partner, Thom Brennaman, after a franchise quarterback, there isn’t a player in the entire NFL that he would rather build his team around than Percy Harvin. He is obviously very diverse and gives the Vikings offensive flexibility that is unmatched by any other player in the league. Not only does he line up in the backfield, with 11 carries, but he also entered the game with a league-leading 27 receptions. With just three catches on Sunday, he dropped to third behind Victor Cruz and Danny Amendola.
The addition of Jerome Simpson may be the most overlooked of the entire offseason. In his first game back after suspension, Simpson had four catches for 50 yards, and drew at least two pass-interference penalties on deep routes down the sidelines. His speed on the outside will test defenders deep while leaving Harvin and Kyle Rudolph to work underneath. In Harvin’s case, he can be very disruptive with yards after catch.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for this defense, but after four games, the Vikings are in the top 10 in scoring defense, total yards and rushing defense. And for what was supposed to be a weakness for this team, the secondary has really played well — giving up just 228 yards per game through the air, 15th in the NFL. It is a secondary that started two rookies this week in Josh Robinson and Harrison Smith — and both were very impressive. Smith isn’t going to be a flashy safety, but he is reliable and always in the right spot on the field. This was very much on display in what was most likely a game-saving pass breakup in the end zone on an attempted pass to Calvin Johnson late in the game. Schematically, the Vikings have traditionally been a standard cover-2 defense, but this year, they are mixing in a variety of coverages and making it more difficult for opposing quarterbacks to read. But to take it to the next level, they will need to force more than just the one interception they have right now.
The Cardinals start the season 4-0 for the first time since 1974, when they were still the St. Louis Cardinals. More impressive, dating back to last season, the Cardinals have won 11 of their last 13 games, the best record in the NFL over that span, yet still found themselves in the midst of a quarterback controversy heading into the season. After losing out in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, they turned back to John Skelton who started in the Week 1 over the Seahawks. During that game, Skelton endured an ankle injury that has kept him sidelined ever since and Kevin Kolb has taken over nicely. It wasn’t pretty against New England, but he did just enough in the second half to secure the win, and he has looked sharp in the weeks since. Outside of an awful red zone interception on Sunday against the Dolphins, Kolb bounced back to lead his team to a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter, in which he converted on two fourth downs. In overtime, after a defensive takeaway, he calmly put his team in position for a game-winning Jay Feely field goal.
I’ve heard the rule that you can’t lose your starting position due to injury, but I’d go ahead and rip up that page in my rulebook if I was Ken Whisenhunt.
Although it wasn’t on display on Sunday, the strength of this team is the defense led by coordinator Ray Horton. He has built this defense in the mold of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a part of three Super Bowls and helped the defense to rank in the top 10 for seven consecutive seasons, three of which were as the league leader. Now, in just his second season with the Cardinals, he entered this game with a defense that had given up just two touchdowns, the fewest in the NFL.
Sunday was a struggle for this unit, giving up 480 yards of total offense compared to just an average of 316 over the first three. Even still, they held the Dolphins to just 21 points and still maintain the league’s third-best scoring defense at just 15.2 points per game. The Cardinals were playing without Darnell Dockett, the cornerstone to this defense. His presence in the middle of the defensive line allows for his team to pressure from the outside with Calais Campbell and blitzing backers. Dockett was truly missed in this game.