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NFC North Preview: Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings didn’t have too much to smile about last season, finishing a dismal 3-13 and last place in the NFC North. They also saw their premier running back, Adrian Peterson, suffer a torn ACL towards the end of the season. The only bright spot was defensive lineman Jared Allen setting a team record with 22 sacks.

QB Christian Ponder will have to show great improvement in order for the Vikings to have success this year. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America)

The 2012 outlook for the Vikings doesn’t look too much better, especially with seemingly every other team in the division improving.

The Vikings’ biggest weakness in 2011, their secondary, remains their biggest weakness entering 2012. The Vikings gave up 4,019 passing yards last season, including 34 touchdowns (most in the NFL). It will be a new secondary for Minnesota this season but no real improvements were made. Second-round pick Harrison Smith has won one of the starting jobs, which says something about the kind of talent the Vikings have at the position.

If the Vikings want to have a prayer at finishing somewhere other than last in the NFC North, they need their secondary to come up big. With arguably three elite quarterbacks in their division, Minnesota can ill-afford to have their secondary repeat last year’s performance. With the addition of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit aren’t the only teams with a passing attack.

A lot of the Vikings’ potential success will hinge on the improvement of quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder took over as the starter in week 7 of the 2011 season and finished the year completing 158 of 291 passes for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Ponder has certainly shown improvement in the preseason, looking more confident, more accurate and looking like a better leader of the offense.

The weight of offensive success doesn’t all land on Ponder’s shoulders, it also hinges on Adrian Peterson’s ability to recover from reconstructive knee surgery. One of the NFL’s most explosive running backs, Peterson tore his ACL last season and will have to find confidence in his reconstructed knee. As it is, there is still question as to whether or not Peterson will even be available for the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jared Allen had a team record 22 sacks last year (Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

It isn’t all bad in Minneapolis. If there is one thing the Vikings do almost better than anybody, it’s rushing the passer. Jared Allen set a team record recording 22 sacks. He fell just 1/2 a sack short of tying the NFL single-season record of 22.5 sacks set by Michael Strahan. Allen wasn’t the only one getting to the quarterback, however, as the Vikings racked up 50 sacks on the season. That’s right, the Minnesota Vikings had 50 sacks in 2011. Minnesota needs to keep that up, especially against division opponents. The Vikings can certainly benefit from continually knocking Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford to the ground.

When all is said and done, it is going to be a long, long season for the Vikings.

They open the season at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars and then travel to Indianapolis in week 2. Both games should be winnable for the Vikings but weeks 2, 3 and 4 get more challenging with the 49ers, Lions and Titans.

The middle of the schedule doesn’t look too daunting for a decent NFL team, but the Vikings aren’t one of them. I see them struggling through that stretch, hanging around .500 at that point in the season.

Look for the Vikings’ season to fall apart following the bye week in week 12. They have to travel to Chicago and Green Bay back-to-back weeks and then face the Bears again in week 15. They wrap up the last three weeks with two road games at St. Louis and Houston and end at home against the Packers. Through that stretch I see them going 1-5.

My final prediction for this team is a slightly improved 6-10 season and another 4th place finish in the NFC North.