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Vikings, with a few breaks, could share first place in NFC North

By Dan Wiederer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings don’t care what you think.

They haven’t all along. So why start now?

That means you, NFL experts, who had them Sharpied in for a last-place finish in the NFC North, projecting maybe six wins, tops.

Well, look at the Vikings now. The 6-4 Vikings, that is. If all breaks right Sunday — read: a win in Chicago coupled with a Green Bay loss to the Giants — they could share first place in the division heading into Week 13.

And that means you, too, skeptical fans, the ones who witnessed those consecutive losses to Tampa Bay and Seattle a few weeks back and began shoveling out the grave for those 2012 playoff hopes.

Well, understand this: the Vikings were bothered by those failures but never discombobulated. And they promised momentum could quickly be regained with a sharp effort against Detroit.

Then they delivered, winning 34-24 and taking some much-needed serenity with them on their bye-week getaways.

In a season that’s been surprising on so many levels, it’s been amazing how these Vikings have functioned, somehow deaf to the NFL’s cacophony.

None of the outside chatter registers. Not the prognostications, not the in-depth analysis.

Not the hype. Not the doubt.

“After you’re in this long enough,” center John Sullivan said, “you realize how reactive the outside world can be. But truthfully, so little of that matters.”

So as the anticipation heightens for Sunday’s showdown in Chicago, the Vikings simply see another game, one that demands intense preparation but also requires them not to be consumed with the ramifications of the result.

There’s an importance to feeling this balance. It’s a mindset that has seemingly spread the past seven months.

Coming off last season’s 3-13 mess, coach Leslie Frazier asked players to invest heavily over the offseason in order to accelerate the turnaround. They did, with strong attendance throughout the spring conditioning sessions leaving Frazier astounded.

Then, heading into training camp with so many predictions of mediocrity swirling around them, Frazier commanded players to ignore the outside noise, not wanting low expectations to become a crutch.

The players complied.

Most recently, after that rough outing in Seattle handed the Vikings their third defeat in 22 days, Frazier and his leadership committee met and discussed ways to make sure a glum feeling wouldn’t spread with worries that the hard work of the previous seven months was suddenly caving in.

In preparation for the Lions game, Frazier asked his established stars — Jared Allen, Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson, among others — to enliven practice, to “be a little more rah-rah.”

Without hesitation, they delivered.

“All of a sudden guys feel like ‘Whoa, this is different. It’s not just the coaches,’” Frazier said. “So now as a player, these are your peers. And it puts you on point to pay attention.”

Yes, the Vikings know their losses exposed flaws.

“But the biggest thing is we always understood we weren’t far off on anything,” linebacker Erin Henderson said. “It’s never gotten to a point where our struggles had us tempted to abandon everything we’ve been doing.”

Added Sullivan: “That whole idea that the sky was falling? Nobody here ever felt that. I think that’s far more a media construct.”

Sullivan’s partially correct. The media plays a role in the NFL’s weekly hyper-reaction. But also credit a league marketing machine that attaches so much grand significance to every weekend, enticing legions of fans to guzzle that Kool-Aid the way a frat house attacks a keg of Natural Light.

But retaining distance from that frenzy, the Vikings believe, can really stabilize a team.

So as for this daunting six-game stretch that awaits the Vikings? The glass half-empty crowd already fears a winless finish, a 6-10 mark and possible upheaval in the coaching ranks.

The Vikings? They see an opportunity to continue a nice run, still scheming to find their way past the bouncers and behind the velvet rope that separates them from the playoffs.

Said Frazier: “It’s all about now … You just don’t always get in these situations where you control your own destiny like we do. So you want to seize this moment.”

Suddenly, it’s easy to see why two games each with the Packers and Bears plus road trips to Houston and St. Louis have this group far more eager than unnerved.

At season’s end, maybe the Vikings won’t ultimately be good enough to reach the postseason. But they won’t falter because of self-doubt or a lack of harmony. And they won’t be unsettled based on the analysis and chatter of the outside world.

They don’t care what you think. And that’s for the better.

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