(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By DAVE CAMPBELLAP Pro Football Writer
The Minnesota Vikings weren’t supposed to be in first place this season. Not even five games in.
But here they are at 4-1, tied with Chicago and two games ahead of Green Bay in the NFC North. The victories haven’t been flukes, either. Their defense has given up only three touchdowns in the last three games, two of them in the fourth quarter with a healthy lead already established. The offense has been balanced. The special teams have been superb.
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”It’s exciting to know that every week you have a chance. It’s exciting to know that with so many questions going into this year, it’s exciting to answer `OK, if we play our best, we have a chance to beat anybody in the NFL,”’ defensive end Jared Allen said. ”And we’re pretty darn good if we play our best.”
Allen watched several of his well-paid veteran teammates move on during the offseason as general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier tried to renew the roster with youth and potential. Allen was well aware of the 23 losses by the Vikings in 32 games over the last two years, but that didn’t mean he liked this.
”Honestly, I was a little upset. Kind of like baffled, not really knowing what direction we’re going,” Allen said. ”But that’s why you have to put trust in the front office, trust in the coach. That’s their job. My job is to prepare and do what I need to do to help our team win. After going through training camp and watching these guys, how hard they work and seeing our young guys really step up and take leadership roles and just play football, it’s been fun.”
This is a confident team, as quarterback Christian Ponder and several others made clear following the 30-7 victory over Tennessee on Sunday.
”I know everyone else is surprised that we’re 4-1. What stinks is what we should be 5-0,” Ponder said, referring to the 23-20 loss at Indianapolis on Sept. 16.
That defeat was sobering, so much that soft-spoken veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield delivered an impassioned, pointed challenge to the entire team the day after about the overall effort and attitude. Frazier expressed a similar concern during the week leading up to the Colts game.
That’s the type of reaction a team expected to make the playoffs and push for the Super Bowl might have, but too early in the season for a purportedly rebuilding squad to take one loss so seriously. But that’s evidence of the way the Vikings have felt about themselves all along, even after finishing a franchise-worst 3-13 last year. Frazier has repeatedly mentioned the benefit of an entire offseason, unlike the year before when the lockout wiped that out, to this team’s chemistry.
”Everything you’re seeing now is a byproduct of what happened this offseason with our players. They are to be congratulated for showing up and allowing our coaches to work with them and really put them through the paces … so we could get this thing turned around and headed in the right direction. That’s how you change the culture,” Frazier said.
Following the attention-getting upset of NFC favorite San Francisco and the character-building road win over Detroit, the Vikings faced another hurdle on Sunday in the Titans. This was the time for an improving team to show it’s mature enough to decisively beat a struggling opponent, and that’s what they did.
Afterward, the Vikings went out of their way to express caution about enjoying the strong start too much, even after all they’ve endured over the last two years. Despite their self-assurance, they’ve been so far acting like a team that’s been in front before, even though so few of the current players (16 of 53) were around in 2009 when Brett Favre and that bunch reached the NFC championship game.
”We’re all believing in each other,” wide receiver Percy Harvin said, adding: ”We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Regardless of our record or how good we’re doing right now this team is in no way satisfied.”
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