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Sunday Slant: Season Preview

Posted Sep 4, 2011

Welcome to the premier edition of “Sunday Slant,” a brand-new weekly feature on vikings.com that will hit the hot-button topics in the world of the Vikings and the NFL. This is not a place for the uninformed or the un-opinionated.

This week’s “Sunday Slant” is a season-preview edition and will serve as a “toes in the water” version of this new feature. We’ll take it slow this week, slowly wading through the shallow end of the pool. Next week, and in subsequent installments throughout the season, we’ll dive right into the topics on everyone’s mind – and we’ll offer plenty of opinions along the way. Don’t forget to utilize the comments feature at the bottom of this page to chime in with your opinion and contribute to the discussion with other Vikings fans.

 

Vikings heading the right direction with Frazier at the helm
The atmosphere in which this year’s Vikings squad is operating could not be any different than in 2010. A big reason for this important and positive change is Leslie Frazier, who is entering his first season as an NFL head coach. Judging by the way his team and the Vikings organization is functioning, though, you’d never guess it was Frazier’s first go-around as the leader of an NFL team.

We saw how gracefully Frazier led the Vikings as interim head coach through the last six games of a brutal 2010 season. In those final six weeks, the Vikings played “home” games at Detroit’s Ford Field and the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium due to the Metrodome roof collapse, they spent four days in Philadelphia after a winter snow storm for the ages delayed a Sunday night game to Tuesday night and they watched the career of one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history come to a clumsy conclusion. Through all of that, Frazier led the team to a 3-3 record, a remarkable accomplishment with everything considered.

If Frazier could guide last year’s team to a .500 record under those circumstances, I have confidence he can guide this year’s team to a winning record under regular circumstances.

Keep this in mind, too. In 12 seasons as an NFL coach, Frazier has suffered a losing season only twice. Additionally, the quarterback Frazier has enlisted to lead his team in 2011 – 13-veteran Donovan McNabb – has guided his teams to the playoffs seven times in 12 seasons. At two of the most important positions on the team – head coach and quarterback – the Vikings have proven winners calling the shots.

One way we often judge the performance of the President of the United States is to gauge whether Americans think the country is “going in the right direction.” In judging the Vikings Commander and Chief in his performance so far, there is no doubt the franchise is going in the right direction.

Predicting division winners
What would a season preview edition be without predictions? We typically don’t get into the prediction business on vikings.com, but that’s another great aspect of Sunday Slant. Here’s a look at each division – minus the NFC North – and the team I think will claim the crown…

In the NFC, I’ll take the Dallas Cowboys (East), New Orleans Saints (South) and Arizona Cardinals (West). I like the Cowboys because quarterback Tony Romo is healthy and poised for a prolific season, especially with wide receiver Dez Bryant ready to breakout. In the South, everyone is ready to anoint the Atlanta Falcons as champions, but I think the Saints have a better defense and I’ll take Drew Brees as the underdog any day. Out West, it’s close between the Cardinals and Rams but I think St. Louis is still learning how to win and in the meantime new quarterback Kevin Kolb will be wise enough to lean heavily on wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Jr.

In the AFC, I’ll take the New England Patriots (East), Indianapolis Colts (South), Baltimore Ravens (North) and San Diego Chargers (West). I picked the Patriots over the Jets because the Jets are bound for a slight letdown after back-to-back conference championship appearances. The Colts are my pick in the South largely because I’m a contrarian and everyone is tabbing the Texans, but I also think quarterback Peyton Manning will keep a strong hold of that division. In the North, I think the Steelers defense regresses a bit this season, which gives Baltimore an edge; I actually think Baltimore will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Out West, the Chargers will be dominant with their explosive offense.

NFC North Over/Under
We won’t completely neglect the NFC North with predictions. Let’s play a little over/under with number of wins. Below I’ll list each team in the division in alphabetical order, what Vegas is putting for their over/under win total and then my prediction and reasoning. Here we go…

Chicago Bears (8.5) – I’m actually one who thinks quarterback Jay Cutler will improve in 2011, but other areas of that team will regress slightly and that’s why I’ll take the UNDER. Considering they’re the defending division champions, the Bears aren’t getting much respect. Maybe that will motivate them.

Detroit Lions (7.5) – Head Coach Jim Schwartz has this team going in the right direction and this year they’re going to take a (small) step forward. I don’t think they’ll go to the playoffs, but I do think this is at least an 8-8 team. I’ll take the OVER.

Green Bay Packers (11.5) – Give me the UNDER here, not because I think Green Bay is going to regress, but because to take the over I’d have to think the Packers will win 12 games. Winning 12 games is incredibly difficult to do. The Packers were a very good team last year, and they won 10 games. I don’t think they’re two games better this year.

Minnesota Vikings (7) – As I stated earlier, Frazier has had just two losing campaigns in 12 seasons on NFL sidelines and McNabb has been to the playoffs seven times in 12 seasons. The Vikings are in good hands with those two individuals, have solid talent at other important spots and are on the improve. This is a .500 team or better, which means I’m taking the OVER.

Vikings to watch early this season
There are a few Vikings I’ll be keeping an extra close eye on during the early part of the season. I’m anticipating Anthony Herrera to be the starter at RG, which makes the offensive line stronger and deeper. Herrera has steadily progressed this preseason and if he can be solid in his return from injury, I think the Vikings offensive line will quickly go from a question mark to a strongpoint of the team.

With DT Kevin Williams unavailable for the first two games, Letroy Guion will step into the starting lineup. He’s a guy who has looked better and better since the moment the Vikings drafted him a few years ago and this will be his chance to make a big impact on this team. The Chargers in Week 1 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 will certainly target Guion to see if he can fill the gap created by Williams’ absence.

Rookie TE Kyle Rudolph had a great training camp and preseason. Is he the future of the tight end position in Minnesota? I think we’ll get a pretty good idea early in the season. If he doesn’t disappear in games, the Vikings will have a nice tight end combination in Visanthe Shiancoe and Rudolph. Going even further, I think McNabb will look to Rudolph at a crucial point in a game early this season, and if Rudolph comes through in that situation, then he’ll have earned his stripes in McNabb’s eyes and that will be a rite of passage of sorts for Rudolph in McNabb’s eyes.

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