Eight-game capsule: The Vikings blew three substantial halftime leads in September and have lost five games by a touchdown or less. Still, it's been clear for weeks that 2011 would not be a playoff season in Minnesota. Their offense has made tailback Adrian Peterson the NFL's leading rusher but has lacked explosiveness. Their defense has proved vulnerable to age, injuries and crime. The ascendance of rookie quarterback Christian Ponder has generated a bright spot in a rebuilding season.
Christian Ponder took over the reins in Week 7 against the Packers and almost knocked off the defending champions.
MVP: Peterson's 798 yards leads the NFL and qualifies as the second-best first half to a season of his career. He is also on pace for 334 attempts, which would be his highest total in three seasons. But it's obvious Peterson is the most dynamic player on the team and at this point should be their centerpiece. He caught five of Ponder's 18 completions last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, and it would make sense to expand his role in the passing game.
Runner-up: Defensive end Jared Allen has a league-leading 12.5 sacks, putting him on an early pace to break the NFL record of 22.5 for the season. With three forced fumbles, an interception and four tipped passes, Allen is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. The Vikings are giving up the third-most passing yards per game (273.6) in the NFL, and opponents have the second-most touchdown passes against them (14), but Allen can't do much more than he is doing. Those failures speak to the lack of depth and coverage skills among the Vikings' back seven.
Biggest surprise: That so many people thought quarterback Donovan McNabb would be better than what he showed in the season's first six games. There were plenty of clues about how football people regarded McNabb's skills this summer, from the relative pittance the Vikings paid to acquire him and renegotiate his contract to the lack of other suitors. McNabb proved to be marginally accurate, adverse to pushing the ball downfield and seemingly resigned to his fate as an ill-equipped place-holder for Ponder. If the Vikings gained anything by acquiring him, it was giving Ponder six weeks to learn the NFL routine before taking the job.
Expected much more: Linebacker Chad Greenway has always been a reliable, active and earnest player. But when the Vikings gave him $20 million guaranteed as part of a new five-year contract, it seemed time for Greenway to emerge as a big-time playmaker. That simply hasn't happened. He unofficially leads the team with 66 tackles, but he hasn't had a sack, forced a fumble or intercepted a pass this season. When an opponent is roaring back from a 20-point halftime deficit, as the Detroit Lions did in Week 3, you hope that a player like Greenway would make a play to stop the bleeding and secure victory. There's still time, though.
Stat to note: Peterson has gained a higher percentage of his total yards (57.3) after first contact than any other NFL running back. That speaks both to his relentless running style and the relative lack of room his offensive line has afforded him.
Bonus stat to note: The Vikings have run on a higher percentage of their first down plays (61) than all but every NFL team except the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Looking ahead: When they're not distracted by the team's stadium situation, Vikings fans will have Ponder's continued development to keep them interested. With a tough schedule that includes games at Green Bay, Atlanta, and Detroit, the Vikings should be thrilled to split their final eight games.