MINNEAPOLIS -- When you spend enough time around the NFL, you realize there is an inverse proportion between what you think you know and what you actually know. I'd like a show of hands from those people who genuinely were convinced, without emotion or rooting interest, that the Minnesota Vikings would tear up the Detroit Lions for 60 minutes Sunday at the Metrodome.
I'm sitting on my hands at the moment. I suspect you are as well.
The Vikings were on a two-game losing streak, on top of a monthlong offensive slump. Receiver Percy Harvin was sidelined by an ankle injury. Me? I spent time before the game looking up the NFL record for fewest yards in a game. (Minus-7, by the Seattle Seahawks in 1979.)
The Lions, meanwhile, had won three of their past four games, and last Sunday they played their most complete game of the season in a victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Naturally, the Vikings jumped on the Lions from the outset of Sunday's 34-24 victory, setting season highs in scoring, total yards (403) and surprises.
"We were never in danger of losing," defensive end Jared Allen correctly assessed after a game that dropped the Lions to the far fringes of playoff contention. Because nothing makes sense in this league, the Vikings roared into their bye very much in the playoff conversation at 6-4.
I won't pretend that I suspected or predicted that divisional scenario after 10 weeks of the season. But we can work backward and suggest two recent developments in Minnesota that, in retrospect, indicated the Vikings could straighten themselves out against the Lions.
The first was Harvin's injury, which sparked a reassessment of the offense after a 62-yard passing performance last week against the Seahawks. The Vikings are assuredly a better team with Harvin on the field, but Sunday, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and quarterback Christian Ponder had no choice but to consider other options.
Ponder spread his 24 completions among nine different pass-catchers -- 10, if you consider his own "reception" on a tipped pass in the first quarter. Tight end Kyle Rudolph re-emerged from mothballs with seven receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown, and Ponder finished with his best passer rating (114.2) in two months.
Running back Adrian Peterson will get plenty of national air time this week after rushing for 171 yards, bringing his four-game total to 629 yards. But most of the production Sunday came in the fourth quarter after Ponder had established an offensive rhythm.
"[Harvin's injury] could possibly be a blessing in disguise," Peterson said. "Because with Percy out there, we're definitely going to get the ball in his hands, and you see Christian kind of forced into giving it to him sometimes. So with him being out, other guys stepped up. He was able to get back there and just go through his reads and progressions and find the guys that were open."
Whereas Ponder had been in a "funk," Peterson said, he regained his "swagger" early in Sunday's game. That was clear when the Vikings opened the game with an empty backfield. Ponder scanned through three reads on his first pass before settling on fullback Jerome Felton for a 5-yard gain. Four plays later, Ponder calmly stepped up in the pocket on third-and-9 and threw deep down the middle to rookie receiver Jarius Wright.
Wright was playing in his first NFL game and was looking at his first NFL throw. In practice Friday, he had dropped the ball on that same play. Ponder said he worked with him afterward to "make sure he got it right," and had no hesitation about heaving a 54-yard bomb in the game. The completion was the Vikings' longest of the season, and it set up Wright's eventual 3-yard touchdown reception to open a never-relinquished lead.
The play was no accident. According to Ponder, the Vikings were convinced the Lions would play a soft Cover 2 defense in third-and-long situations. Wright easily ran past safety Erik Coleman to get open, the first of at least three big plays on which the Vikings exploited the Lions' undermanned secondary.
(The others: Rudolph broke safety Ricardo Silva's tackle attempt on his 20-yard touchdown, and Silva took a poor angle on Peterson's 61-yard score in the fourth quarter.)
"I think coming up and completing passes early was huge for our offense," Rudolph said. "Not only the quarterback but also the wide receivers and the offensive line, just getting in a rhythm as a whole. That's been the biggest thing. We haven't necessarily been having one thing that's hurt the passing game. It's really just having that rhythm and to come out and establish that rhythm."
The second development might have been an off-hand comment defensive coordinator Alan Williams made during his weekly meeting with reporters Thursday. Williams said he had identified several "loaf" plays from last week's game against the Seahawks, and from listening to Allen after the game, it sounds as if more than a few players took note.
"We're not supposed to talk about things in the paper," Allen said with a half-smile. "We're supposed to keep that in-house but I guess that's just for the players. ... But he makes a point. You have to play fast. I think that was more of his point. I hear the word 'loaf,' I think of guys not trying. That's never the case of this team. We've got to play fast to the ball. That's what we did today."
Indeed, the defense looked much more like the swarming, hard-hitting group that helped the Vikings start the season 5-2. The Lions converted only one of nine third-down attempts, and the Vikings were as intent on hitting receiver Calvin Johnson as they were in the teams' Sept. 30 meeting that injured Johnson on multiple levels.
"They hit him in the head twice," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "Only one of them was flagged."
So is this the Vikings team we can expect to see on the other side of their bye, with a remaining schedule that includes two games apiece against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers? Is this team for real? I won't pretend to make a guess, and neither will anyone else with a brain.
"We're for real this week," Allen said. "That's all I care about. Hopefully we're for real in two weeks, and we'll take it week by week from there."
Sounds like a plan.