I had a successful run for a brief few games during the middle of this season betting and picking against my hometown team, the Minnesota Vikings. I picked up that strategy in 2010, when gambling against the purple was extremely profitable during a lost 3-13 season.

For the most part this year, however, Minnesota has been surprisingly solid. The defense, with the addition of safety Harrison Smith, is much improved. Adrian Peterson has had a monster season. And Christian Ponder has been maddeningly inconsistent, but has shown, at times, flashes that he might not be a complete dud.

After Sunday’s dismantling of Houston – the second time this season the seemingly outmanned Vikings have physically dominated a supposedly far superior foe – I texted my brother and asked: “Are the Vikings actually good?”

His response: “Been trying to figure that out for some time now myself. Suspect Texans aren’t quite as good as earlier thought, but Vikings are better than I gave them credit for.”

That makes two of us. We went on to agree that this team has the talent to potentially stick with any team on a good day and the shortcomings where on a bad one it could lose to any dreg of a team. But given last season and the predictions going in – few “experts” had the Vikings winning six games this year and I would have thought that a reasonable level of improvement myself back on opening day – how has this team improved to the point where it can be considered a legitimate playoff contender?

  • The aforementioned Smith has brought a skilled safety and a physical presence that has been missing from this team’s secondary going back … when did Robert Griffith retire? Or Joey Browner? The team traded back into the first round to select him and received some criticism for doing so, but he has paid off handsomely.
  • Blair Walsh is another pick that was panned by many “experts” considering other weaknesses on the team. It was shocking that the team just handed him the job, as well, as he was coming off of a weak senior season at Georgia. But he has done everything jettisoned vet Ryan Longwell did in the short field goal game. Walsh has set an NFL record for 50-yard-plus field goals in a single season. And, perhaps most importantly, he has allowed a defense-heavy team to play the field position game, consistently either kicking touchbacks or popping up high kickoffs inside the five-yard-line that have been barely returnable for the opposition.
  • The drafting of Ryan Kalil reinvigorated a once-proud offensive line that had gotten old and subpar. Kalil has been as good a tackle as there is in the NFC North and he has allowed the Vikings to shift Charles Johnson from tackle to guard where he is far more serviceable. Personally I think Minnesota could still use another lineman or two over the long haul, but Kalil alone has made this a much more competitive unit.
  • Then, of course, Adrian Peterson returned from a torn ACL as a man possessed. He’s unlikely to reach Eric Dickerson’s record of 2105 yards, but I think he’s got a solid shot at reaching the 2000 yard mark. He’s had a phenomenal year. I sort of have a theory that he is still a half-step slower than he was before the injury. But if you remember, one of the few criticisms of AP in the earlier years of his career was that he sometimes lacked patience. I’m wondering if that half-step lost, when combined with the improved offensive line play, didn’t create that patience for him by making him a half-second later into the hole than he would have been before. I could be wrong on that, but regardless, he’s clearly having the best season of his career.

That is not to say this team is not flawed. Ponder clearly has to continue developing. And it’s been covered ad nauseam, but when rookie Greg Childs got hurt, it took away this team’s only legitimate shot at having a big, fast receiver going downfield. Save for one or two games, free agent signee Jerome Simpson has done more to prove that he is a number three receiver than a number one.

The Vikings could use another safety, at least one more starting linebacker and a starter and some depth at defensive tackle, given that Kevin Williams is aging and Letroy Guion probably is better suited to a reserve role.

That said, this team clearly has chemistry that last year’s version of the Vikings lacked. It’s a team that clearly WANTS to win for themselves and for Coach Les Frazier. It’s an old-school football team that has been far more entertaining and far more competitive than I thought it would be.

Do I think Minnesota beats Green Bay to earn its way into the playoffs on Sunday? The Packers have a lot to play for too and they are a far-superior team, at least based on talent. So I have predicted that the Green would beat the Purple.

But nothing would surprise me anymore. Not after this team dismantled Houston. Not after it sucked the life out of a San Francisco team back in week three. Nobody who watches the game with an ounce of objectivity would have been terribly surprised heading into the season if the Texans and the 49ers ended up meeting in the Super Bowl. They probably still wouldn’t. And yet the Vikings beat them both convincingly.

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, this team’s rebuilding process is much further along than expected. So, win or lose this week, 2012 has been a fantastically successful season. And Vikings fans have a lot to look forward to in 2013.