EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings understood the low expectations from outside the organization.
During training camp, linebacker Chad Greenway asked the obvious: Why would the pundits predict good things for Minnesota, a team coming off a franchise-tying 13 losses, with a star running back trying to return from major knee surgery, an unproven second-year quarterback and a defense that was historically bad against the pass last season?
But Greenway witnessed a transformation during those training camp days that manifested itself in September. He sensed a “buy-in” from everyone on the team, a change in mentality to reverse the downward slide the Vikings had been on for two years.
“There’s a confidence we have, and everybody is just playing for each other,” Greenway said. “Playing for the guy next to you makes a big difference, and last year the circumstances were so much different.”
Greenway added: “I think we’re all in. I don’t think you can see anybody in this locker room who has not bought in completely.”
One-fourth of the way through the season, belief in itself has Minnesota at 3-1 and tied atop the NFC North with the Chicago Bears. The Vikings planted the seeds for success last offseason, when they attempted to change both the team’s personnel and attitude. Greenway credits coach Leslie Frazier and the team’s staff for the change in mentality, and it began with near-unanimous participation in the offseason program.
“These are voluntary sessions, but the attendance that we had here gave me an indication that the guys were really hungry to have success, and that’s what you need to see,” Frazier said. “When you are trying to flip the script, you are trying to get things changed, trying to change the culture a little bit, you need everybody to participate otherwise you are just talking to a small percentage of the team.”
After wins the past two weeks against 2011 playoff teams, a different label is being attached to the Vikings: surprise. So is this a fluke, or can they sustain their level of play in what was expected to be one of the NFL’s toughest divisions?
“What we’re putting out there on tape, that’s the biggest thing,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “We’re showing people we’re not a surprise team no more. We come out and play and compete every rep. Once you do that, teams they recognize and respect that. We just got to keep on doing it all over again.”
After a Week 3 upset win at home against the San Francisco 49ers, a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Vikings went on the road and snapped their 11-game NFC North losing streak by beating Detroit. Putting together back-to-back strong performances confirmed what the Vikings knew all along: They can be a playoff contender in 2012.
“That just put the nail in the coffin, just showing that, ‘Whoa.’ People thought that was a big fluke and then we come out and beat Detroit,” Griffen said. “We’ve just got to keep it rolling. We can’t dwell in the past with this win. We won. People have big games. Now we’ve just got to move on to Tennessee and get the next victory.”
Beginning with the Tennessee Titans (1-3) this weekend, the Vikings’ next five games are against teams outside the division. The 4-0 Arizona Cardinals are the only opponent in those games with a winning record, perhaps allowing the Vikings to have the strong first half needed before finishing with a division-heavy second-half schedule.
Suddenly, stacking up wins seems far more probable than it did when Peterson was still rehabbing and quarterback Christian Ponder was a mystery coming off an uneven rookie season.
Peterson has come back better than expected and posted his first 100-yard rushing game of the season against the Lions. Ponder has played smartly and efficiently, owning the league’s eighth-best quarterback rating (97.7). And most important, Minnesota is tied for seventh in the league with just four turnovers.
Meanwhile, the defense that was gashed so often last year is ninth in the league in fewest yards allowed and seventh in fewest points allowed. And mentally, Frazier believes the players are ready to handle the prosperity of winning.
“Just seeing how we responded after the Indy game, and then coming back after San Francisco, I think we’re maturing,” Frazier said. “We’re growing as a team. This will be a little heady for them. This is new territory for most of our guys. I got a feeling they’ll handle it the right way.”