Zulgad: In a rebuilding season, Vikings have little to lose on Sunday
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The Minnesota Vikings find themselves in an interesting and favorable predicament entering Sunday's regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers.
While a victory would put the Vikings in the playoffs and a loss almost certainly would end their season, the reality is that no matter what happens at the Metrodome, Leslie Frazier's team is in a no-lose situation.
Simply put, whether they win or lose on Sunday, this season has been a success for the Vikings.
Frazier and his players would never admit to this, but coming off a 3-13 season, there was nobody outside of Winter Park who expected much out of this team.
The Vikings appeared to make a major mistake in 2011 by not putting a rebuilding plan into place in Frazier's first season as head coach.
Shortly after last season ended and Rick Spielman was give the title of general manager and control of the 53-man roster, he began reconstructing the team. Aging pieces were subtracted, younger players were added and it appeared the Vikings were set to embark on a youth movement that would mean the Vikings were in for another long season in 2012.
That never happened.
Instead, the Vikings will enter Sunday with a 9-6 record and having never been below .500. There were moments when it appeared the wheels were about to come off.
After a 4-1 start, the Vikings lost three of five entering their bye week. The schedule coming out of the bye appeared extremely difficult. When the Vikings lost back-to-back games at Chicago and Green Bay to fall to 6-6, the logical thought was that Frazier had gotten the most of his team.
The resilient Vikings then beat Chicago at the Metrodome and won back-to-back games on the road in St. Louis and Houston. The 36-22 victory over the Rams was impressive but St. Louis is a .500 team.
The Houston Texans, however, are one of the NFL's best teams and the fact the Vikings cruised to a 23-6 victory last Sunday at Reliant Stadium helped to serve notice that Minnesota appears to be getting hot at the right time.
Christian Ponder has gone from complete liability - see his performance on Dec. 2 at Lambeau Field - to returning to what the Vikings need him to be in recent weeks. That isn't a superstar, but rather a game manager who doesn't make critical mistakes.
The Vikings' season has been filled with interesting storylines.
Adrian Peterson's quest to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record - he needs 208 yards Sunday to do so - is even more remarkable considering the comeback the running back has made from reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
Then there is the play from several of Spielman's draft picks, including first-rounders Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith and sixth-round kicker Blair Walsh, who earned himself an invitation to the Pro Bowl this past week.
Kalil, taken with the fourth-overall pick out of Southern California, has been so solid this season that you rarely hear his name mentioned. That's the true sign of a good offensive lineman.
Smith, meanwhile, has provided the Vikings the type of stability and hard-hitting at safety that they so badly needed for several years. Smith's tackling technique can definitely improve, but he long ago made it clear that wide receivers need to think twice about coming over the middle against the Vikings. He also has returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns.
The one big disappointment has been the passing game.
Ponder, now 25 starts into his NFL career, has yet to show the Vikings he is their quarterback of the future. The Vikings weren't expected to contend this season, but they were hoping that Ponder would play well enough that he could remove all questions about the quarterback position.
That has not happened.
The logical conclusion is the Vikings will attempt to sign a veteran this offseason to at least compete with Ponder in training camp. There are some who would like to see Spielman and Frazier give up on Ponder completely, but considering the Vikings invested the 12th-overall pick in the 2011 draft on him it's hard to believe that will happen.
There also is an argument to be made that Ponder's job has been made more difficult because he doesn't have a legitimate down-field threat when it comes to the wide receivers. Jerome Simpson didn't cost the Vikings much - he was signed to a one-year, $2 million deal - but he also has given the Vikings next to nothing.
He has 23 receptions, has dropped several passes and hasn't found the end zone once.
Ponder has thrown 15 touchdowns and nine have gone to tight end Kyle Rudolph. Three went to wide receiver Percy Harvin, whose season ended when he was placed on injured reserve because of an ankle injury. Besides that, Michael Jenkins, Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton have the other three touchdown catches.
Tight end John Carlson, signed to a five-year, $25 million deal during the offseason, also would qualify as a free-agent bust for 2012. Carlson was injured early in training camp, never got into any type of rhythm and has only eight receptions on the season.
But before anyone gets overly upset about Spielman's misses on the free-agent market, keep in mind this roster is unlikely to ever rely on being built through acquisitions off the open market. Spielman's plan looks far more like that of Packers general manager Ted Thompson.
The draft and building internally are how the roster will be constructed with a few free-agent parts brought in here and there to help out.
That's how Spielman went about retooling the roster for 2012 and it appeared to be the wise approach, although one that would take time to pay off.
A year later, it's clear it was the wise approach. But if the Vikings win Sunday, the payoff of a postseason berth is going to come far quicker than any of us could have expected.