|ESPN.com: NFC North||[Print without images]|
|Chris Morrison/US Presswire|
|Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson played like the MVP candidate Sunday instead of Arizona's Kurt Warner in the Vikings' 35-14 win over the Cardinals.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- I walked out of Minnesota's locker room Sunday with one overwhelming thought: The Vikings are thinking big.
Yes, there were the requisite rounds of "one week at a time" quotes and most everyone pointed out they have yet to clinch a playoff spot, let alone the NFC North title. But after dismantling Arizona by three touchdowns in a 35-14 victory, at least one player was looking deep down the line.
"Let me ask you a question," the player said after a group interview dissipated. "What do we have to do to get the second seed?"
For a moment, I was totally vacant. (OK, perhaps that's my default position. But anyway....)
This franchise has made two playoff appearances during this decade and hasn't won a division title since 2000. And yet this year's collection of highly-paid veterans isn't going to be happy with a simple playoff appearance. They expect to make a postseason run as well. And after such a convincing victory over the NFC West champions, some Minnesota players are mentally calculating the odds of a best-case scenario for their season.
"As a whole, this is the best we've played," receiver Bobby Wade said. "This sets a standard for us. Coach [Brad Childress] is going to hold us to this high standard, and he should. There were mistakes that we made and nothing is ever perfect. But all in all, it's really exciting to win in the fashion that we did."
Indeed, the Vikings jumped to their biggest halftime lead in five seasons, a 28-0 advantage that could have been larger were it not for a red-zone fumble by tailback Chester Taylor. They made big plays -- including an 82-yard punt return from Bernard Berrian and two touchdown passes of more than 40 yards from Tarvaris Jackson -- and harassed Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner into an uncharacteristically hesitant performance.
The Vikings have now won four games in a row, the best active streak in the NFC, and overall they have victories in nine of their past 12 games. And since you asked, yes, they left the locker room Sunday knowing they could overtake Carolina for the No. 2 playoff seed in the conference if a series of outcomes fall in their favor. (More on those scenarios later this week, including one that would allow them to beat out the N.Y. Giants for the No. 2 seed should Carolina jump to No. 1.)
More immediately, however, the Vikings can clinch the NFC North as early as Sunday with a home victory over Atlanta. Even if the Falcons win that game, the Vikings would clinch with a Bears loss Monday night against Green Bay.
"We've got some good momentum," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Winning four straight, you like that. Obviously the goal right now is to get into the tournament. I'll say we're peaking at the right time when we get into the tournament and then deep into it in January and February. We've got a goal, and we're in a position where if we win, we'll meet those goals. We don't have to worry about any of this happening or that happening. We're in control."
Sunday, Allen contributed two sacks toward a defensive effort that had Warner on his heels the entire afternoon. The Vikings sacked him four times, hit him after 11 other throws, knocked down eight passes and intercepted him once.
But it was a subtle adjustment the Vikings made in their secondary that might have been most responsible for Warner's long day: Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier changed the way safeties Darren Sharper and Madieu Williams lined up before most plays to confuse Warner's pre-snap reads.
All quarterbacks use safety positioning to identify coverage, but Sharper and Williams showed Warner a look they had never before put on tape. It was enough to knock off Warner's timing with his big three receivers. Larry Fitzgerald Jr., Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston combined for 15 receptions, but none went for more than 23 yards.
"It's tough to confuse Kurt because he's a veteran quarterback," Sharper said. "We just wanted to disguise our coverage in a different way than we've been doing."
If any quarterback was going to be confused Sunday, you would have assumed it to be Jackson. But in his first start since the Vikings benched him in September, Jackson set a career high with four touchdown passes. Nearly half of his 17 throws were screens or safe bootlegs, but the Vikings also mixed in a pair of downfield shots to Berrian and another to Wade -- whose 59-yard scoring reception sealed the game with 17 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I sort of felt like I don't have anything to lose," Jackson said. "I get benched [after] week 2, [when] I wasn't playing my game. You see where it got me. I just went out there and had fun. Just go out there and let it all hang. You know what you're doing. You study enough all week. You got looks in practice. Now just play."
Former starter Gus Frerotte (back) could return to practice this week, but Jackson's performance at least gave the Vikings pause to consider who should start once Frerotte is healthy. (Or, at least it gave reporters a reason to ask Childress about a quarterback controversy.)
"Why even go there?" Childress responded. "It's a nice luxury to have two guys and I said all the way along we're probably going to need a couple to get it done."
Tellingly, however, Childress would not answer a direct question about whether Frerotte will remain the starter when he regains his health.
"I'm not even pondering that right now." Childress said. "That's a down-the-road deal. [We] have a long plane trip home and a couple of days before we get to Wednesday."
A few other points of interest from the Vikings' locker room: