NFL: Why the Vikings Are Real NFC Contenders

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Hanah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s time to take the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings seriously as a legitimate threat in the NFC, where they hold an impressive 7-2 record through the first 10 weeks of the season. Since falling 20-3 to the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener, the Vikings have steamrolled through their schedule with their only blemish being a 23-20 loss to the Denver Broncos. Along the way, Minnesota developed an identity as a team with a tough-nosed defense and run-first offense, with Adrian Peterson carrying the load in what looks to be another MVP-caliber campaign.

Peterson is on pace for over 1,700 rushing yards, which could be the third time he eclipses that mark in his career. His league-leading 961 rushing yards is actually four more yards than what he had at this point in his 2012 MVP season. However, Peterson in that year had a phenomenal finish in the final seven games of the regular season, gaining 1,140 yards over that span.

That said, it’s something that’s not out of the realm of possibility for the 30-year-old, especially after he carved up the Oakland Raiders defense on Sunday for a season-high 203 yards, giving him his NFL record-tying sixth career 200-yard rushing performance. Even with Peterson playing at an elite level, there are plenty of other reasons why the Vikings have taken the next step into the conversation of the league’s best teams.

There has been the stellar play of their defense, led by some promising young talent in defensive tackle Everson Griffen, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and defensive back Harrison Smith. Minnesota holds the ninth-best total defense, giving up the second-fewest points per game (17.1) this season. This includes allowing no more than 23 points to an opponent while holding the third-lowest opponent third-down conversion rate (32.2).

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Along with the emergence of their defense, second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has shown significant progress in his development. He has thrown for more than 220 yards on four occasions and recorded above a 90 passer rating four times. As expected, there have been several bumps along the way for the 23-year-old, but he has continued to be a factor with his arm. He also received help from the strong play of rookie wideout Stefon Diggs and offseason addition Mike Wallace.

In many ways, Bridgewater helps ease the pressure off Peterson to the point where teams are loading up the box considerably less than they have in the past. This provides the six-time Pro Bowler with more opportunities to make big plays — he’s currently second in the league with seven rushes of over 20 yards gained. All of this equates to a solid recipe for success, with the defense keeping the opposing teams out of the end zone with consistency, torching opponents with their league-best rushing attack led by Peterson.

That said, the Vikings face a difficult test over the next month with four consecutive games against formidable playoff teams in the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, and Arizona Cardinals. The Packers have tittered over the past few weeks, but a game with the division lead up for grabs should bring forth a highly-motivated team. The Falcons and Cardinals both possess high-powered offenses with Pro-Bowl quarterbacks in Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer at their respective helms. Last, but certainly not least, the Seahawks are a Super-Bowl caliber team that is fighting to stay in the playoff picture.

All in all, this is a chance for the Vikings to truly separate themselves from the pack or fall back into the fold as just being good enough to be a playoff team. They have a team full of young and promising talent headed by one of the league’s best players in Peterson. Although the second half of the season still remains, Minnesota has earned the reputation as a force to reckon with in the NFC.

All statistics courtesy of ESPN.