NFC North: Larry Fitzgerald Jr.
|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."
PHOENIX -- It's a crisp 50 degrees on Sunday morning in the desert, and we're not expecting the mercury to top the 60-degree mark. I know that comes as a huge disappointment for those hanging on through ice storms and blizzards around the country, but I'm just giving you a glimpse of the elements Minnesota and Arizona will play in later Sunday.
After I zip up my windbreaker, I'll be in the University of Phoenix press box -- along with ESPN.com colleagues John Clayton and Mike Sando -- to chronicle a game with all kinds of playoff implications. The Cardinals are looking at it as a battle for the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoff picture, while the Vikings know they need a win to maintain their one-game in the NFC North.
If all goes well, we'll check in before the game on the final results in Indianapolis (where Detroit is visiting) and Jacksonville (which is hosting Green Bay).
Until then, let's take a spin around the NFC North:
- Does the Vikings' moderately improved pass defense stand a chance against Arizona receivers Larry Fitzgerald Jr., Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston? Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune examines that and other (mis)matches.
- Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press looks at the steps that Vikings coach Brad Childress took to get his team into playoff position.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gets a head start on the overwhelming question in Green Bay: How much did the departure of Brett Favre affect the Packers this season?
- The Packers' porous run defense might catch a break in Jacksonville, notes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning could put on a "clinic" against the Lions defense, predicts the Detroit Free Press.
- Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. Does that mean the Lions will take him No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft? A few mock draft scenarios are already emerging.
- Chicago is already preparing for its rematch with the Packers, writes Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
- Nick Hut of the Northwest Herald points out the recent emergence of Devin Hester at receiver and Danieal Manning as a kickoff returner.