While some teams have already established themselves as Super Bowl contenders, the Minnesota Vikings are looking to climb up from the cellar of the NFC North to playoff contenders. A surprise rise from divisional worst to first is not as improbable as you might think.
Parity is at an extreme in the NFL. For eleven consecutive seasons at least one team who finished last in their division turned things around to capture the divisional title the very next year. As a matter of fact, the worst to first campaign has happened 15 times in the NFL since 2003.
Last season the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles both went from the bottom to the top in the first season under a new coaching staff. Will the Vikings follow their lead this season?
Eight NFL teams have a crack at the worst to first feat. Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, Minnesota, Oakland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington face the unenviable challenge of trying to keep the consecutive streak alive. I’m not an odds maker, but I certainly think the Vikings have as good as any chance to pull it off.
So, who was the last NFC North team to go from worst to first? The Chicago Bear did it in 2005. Quarterback Rex Grossman spent most of his first 3 seasons sidelined with injuries and Kyle Orton, a 4th round rookie from Purdue, took the reins in week 2 and lead the Bears all the way to the playoffs. Orton’s play wasn’t the real story behind the Bears’ rise to the top. The defensive unit lead by second year defensive coordinator Ron Rivera made major improvements to finish 2nd in the league in yards per game after being ranked 21st in that category in 2004. The 2005 Bears’ defense also climbed all the way to 1st in points allowed.
If the Vikings aspire to finish on top of the NFC North this season, an improved defense under new head coach Mike Zimmer is an absolute must. And one of the biggest keys to improving the Vikings defense will be finding a way to keep Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith healthy and on the field for most of the season.
A new coaching staff and fresh concepts on the defensive side of the ball, plus personnel acquisitions like DT Linval Joseph, CB Captain Munnerlyn and first round draft pick LB Anthony Barr have me optimistic that the Vikings’ defensive struggles are in the rear view mirror.
I’m not expecting a top ten D right out of the gate in 2014, but Zimmer has enough young talent to take a leap forward very quickly. Most Vikings fans have high hopes that sooner or later Zimmer will have the defense ranked near the top of the NFL leader board… and my fingers are crossed for sooner rather than later.