The Minnesota Vikings shocked a lot of people last year by finishing the season with a 10-6 record and a berth in the NFC playoffs.
Things might not be so easy this year. There are a number of X-factors who must stand out in order for the team to make the playoffs again this year.
Last season, no one expected much from the Vikings. That won't be the case this year. Also, the Vikings won't have the luxury of playing a last-place schedule, as they did in 2012. The 2013 schedule looks daunting, particularly in the early stages of the year.
While most would agree that the Vikings improved their roster in the offseason, they still lost at least two important components. Percy Harvin, the team's leading receiver and second-most dynamic player, was traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Cornerback Antoine Winfield, the savvy leader of the defense, was cut and signed with Seattle (though he was cut there as well and subsequently retired).
General Manager Rick Spielman did a good job of replacing those two veterans with free-agent signings and draft picks (Harvin with Greg Jennings and Cordarralle Patterson, Winfield with Xavier Rhodes), but there are still question marks on both sides of the ball.
One of the X-factors for the Vikings will be cornerback Chris Cook. Cook has flashed potential in each of his first three NFL seasons. At 26, he's the longest-tenured Vikings corner and is looking to take on a leadership role in the defensive backfield.
However, the numbers don't lie. Cook has never played an entire NFL season. In fact, he's actually missed more games (26) than he's played (22) in his career. He's also failed to register a single interception. If Cook wants to remain in Minnesota, he'll have to perform much more consistently in this the last year of his rookie contract.
Cook, in an interview with Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, states that outside distractions won't be a problem for him this season: "I don't really think about it. I don't really worry about circumstances or situations or a contract year. I'm just playing football, (happy to) be able to do what I love."
Cook will be expected not only to produce, but to provide leadership for younger secondary players like Rhodes and Josh Robinson. After learning from Winfield for his first three seasons, Cook will have to excel in the mentor role if Minnesota is going to compete in the pass-happy NFC North.
To call Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder an X-factor might be stretching the definition of the term. Everyone associated with the team knows that for Minnesota to be successful in 2013, the third-year signal caller will have to step up.
During the preseason, Ponder didn't do much to silence his critics. According to Andrew Krammer of 1500 ESPN, Ponder showed little progress in running the Viking offense this summer. Ponder hasn't looked comfortable, possibly because NFL MVP Adrian Peterson was only on the field for two snaps this preseason, and never touched the ball.
With or without Peterson, Ponder will have to deliver. The team upgraded his receiving corps by adding Greg Jennings and Cordarralle Patterson. While Jennings isn't as explosive as Harvin, he runs better routes. Patterson might be able to produce sparks but is lacking experience.
It's up to Ponder to make both players better.
There are other targets as well. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is coming off of a breakout year, and slot receiver Jarius Wright looked strong in the preseason. The fact is, the Vikings cannot afford to have an anemic pass offense this season.
According to Ben Goessling of the Pioneer Press, the biggest problem for Ponder is confidence. Last year, he started the season on a high note, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and throwing no interceptions in the first four games.
Ponder was equally effective at the end of the season. Over the final four games of the year, he tossed four touchdowns and only one interception in leading the Vikings to the playoffs.
In between, Ponder was pretty horrible. In the middle eight games of the season, Ponder's quarterback rating was under 60 five times. He tossed 11 interceptions and tallied just 10 touchdowns as the Vikings struggled to stay in playoff contention.
It's not reasonable to expect Adrian Peterson to rush for over 2,000 yards again. Ponder needs to play like he did at the beginning and end of last year if for no other reason than to take the load off of Peterson.
Another X-factor on defense will be the man replacing middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who was the team's starter last season at the "mike" spot. Brinkley was allowed to leave via free agency, and will ply his wares in Arizona this season.
Taking over for Brinkley will be Erin Henderson. This is a risky move by the Vikings. Henderson has been a starter for the team for most of the last two seasons at the weak-side linebacker position. Moving him to the middle creates the possibility of weakening two positions in the front seven of the defense.
The team hedged its bets by signing former Green Bay linebacker Desmond Bishop. At first, it was thought that Bishop would take over in the middle, and Henderson would move back to his familiar position.
That hasn't happened. Henderson has performed well at middle linebacker in limited duty this preseason, while Bishop has fought with nagging injuries which limited his reps in practice and in preseason games. When Bishop has been able to play, he's manned the weak-side spot.
Only time will tell if moving Henderson to the middle was a good idea. Neither he nor Bishop are particularly strong in pass coverage—a must for the mike linebacker in the Tampa 2 defense. The depth is thin behind Henderson, with second-year man Audie Cole and rookie Mike Mauti the only real backup options.
It won't matter much if Ponder progresses should Minnesota offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave not open up the offense. Musgrave represents another big X-factor for the upcoming season. The OC can't really be blamed for wanting to give the ball to Adrian Peterson. However, as running backs go, Peterson isn't getting any younger, and he won't be able to carry the ball nearly 350 times a year forever.
Musgrave also can't be blamed for his conservative approach to the passing game last year, given that his best receiver, Percy Harvin, played only half a season. Other options, such as Devin Aromashodu, weren't too inspiring.
This year, Musgrave must open the floodgates. Jennings is a better route-runner than anyone the Vikings had last year. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has emerged as one of the better pass-catchers in the league, and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson was selected to make dynamic plays, a la Harvin.
There's room for Peterson to get the ball in the passing game, and second-year man Jarius Wright has the look of a legitimate NFL slot receiver. There will be no excuse if the Vikings finish 31st in the league in passing offense again this year.
In order to be successful this season, the Vikings will need more creativity and vision from Musgrave, better consistency from Ponder, a full season of standout coverage from Cook and a successful transition from Henderson. If any of these things don't happen, it could be a long year in Minnesota.
If all of them take place, it could be a fun season.