Updated: October 28th, 2012 7:46pm
Zulgad: Vikings' ability to bounce back is about to be put to the test

Zulgad: Vikings' ability to bounce back is about to be put to the test

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by Judd Zulgad

Exactly what happened to the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night is difficult to put your finger on.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers cruised to a far-too-easy 36-17 victory, dominating a Vikings team that appeared unprepared for a nationally televised game in prime time at home.

How does that happen? That's a question that might not have an answer.

The question the Vikings can answer beginning next Sunday in Seattle is how they respond to their first embarrassing defeat of the season.

The optimist will say: The Vikings had a short week, an off night and they will be fine.

Perhaps that will turn out to be true, but one can't assume that to be the case.

Coming off a 3-13 finish in 2011, the Vikings were picked by nearly everyone to finish last in the NFC North. The only question was how many games would they win?

The guess here was four. You didn't have to examine the roster for very long to see that general manager Rick Spielman considered this a rebuilding year.

But the Vikings already have exceeded their victory total from last season and are tied with the Green Bay Packers for second place in the NFC North with a 5-3 record.

Other than the loss to Tampa Bay, the Vikings did an excellent job of taking advantage of an early-season schedule that appeared to be favorable. They got to five wins by beating Jacksonville, San Francisco, Detroit, Tennessee and Arizona.

The only big surprise was the upset of the 49ers. That was the win where it appeared this team might be far more competitive than the product that Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier put on the field last season.

Now, things are about to get much tougher on a weekly basis.

The Vikings will play the Seahawks, which lost at Detroit on Sunday but is 3-0 at home, before playing host to the Lions on Nov. 11 in their final game before the bye week.

The Vikings' final six games coming out of the off week will be at Chicago (6-1), at Green Bay, at home against Chicago, at St. Louis (3-5), at Houston (6-1) and then the regular-season finale at the Metrodome against the Packers.

The Vikings have done an excellent job this season of taking the one game at a time approach and not looking ahead or behind. But that will be tested this week.

It remains to be seen if it is a good or bad thing that the Vikings will end up with nine days between the defeat to the Buccaneers and the Seattle game.

The rest certainly won't hurt in regards to recovery, but is this a young team that will dwell on what went wrong and start to question whether it has the ability to remain competitive? The struggles of quarterback Christian Ponder are in part tied to the fact that he again seems to be over thinking things.

We saw it last season from Ponder as a rookie and we're seeing it again. A quarterback needs to have a swagger that says, "No matter what happens, I've got this handled." Ponder is lacking that right now and he isn't being helped by the fact he has almost no vertical passing game to work with, even with Jerome Simpson playing again.

The Vikings' defense followed the Week 2 loss at Indianapolis by coming out and setting a tone against San Francisco by punching the 49ers in the face. But last Thursday, the Vikings struggled with the fundamental art of tackling for the second consecutive game.

The Vikings can talk all they want about Arizona's 5-foot-7 LaRod Stephens-Howling and Tampa Bay's 5-foot-9 Doug Martin being difficult to tackle because of their size but that's a cop out. Stephens-Howling and Martin combined to run for 239 yards and put up 363 total yards against the Vikings.

That's not acceptable.

Frazier deservedly got plenty of credit for the Vikings' impressive start, but now he's really going to be tested as a coach. In the second year of a three-year contract, Spielman and ownership will be watching Frazier closely to see what he can do to get his team's confidence back up.

It won't be easy with the lack of a downfield passing game and the loss of starting cornerback Chris Cook to a broken arm that will sideline him for at least eight weeks of games.

Frazier was asked Friday about his concern regarding the need to get his team back on track as soon as possible. Players were given Saturday and Sunday off and will return to work Monday with what likely will be a light practice.

"If there's (any issue) from (Thursday) night, that would be it," Frazier said. "And that's what I've been wrestling with, (Thursday) night after the game and (Friday) morning as well. Because it's one game. And it was a tough loss. But it is only one game.

"You can't allow that to carry over to other games. Because I know we can play better and there are some things we have to correct. But if you don't move on from that game, you're right, it can linger and it can have negative effects on future games. So we've got to get everybody back so it shouldn't affect us."

If the Vikings do allow the Tampa Bay loss to linger - and Ponder and the passing offense continue to flounder -- it likely will leave them with the type of record that many predicted for them this season.

That would create questions about Ponder's future, that might not be fair but it will, as well as Frazier's future. It also would leave many saying that while the Vikings took advantage of some favorable matchups early in the season they really weren't that good of team.

However, if Frazier and company can get this thing back on track, the Tampa Bay loss might end up being looked at much the same way as the Colts defeat. Yes, it wasn't pretty but an important lesson was learned and corrections were made.

That would go a long way toward making many feel better about the direction in which this franchise is headed.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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