Sunday slant: Vets say speeches unnecessary

Kevin Williams (Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)

The Vikings have had a couple points in the season where veteran speeches have paid off. But after 15 games and nearly four months with the playoffs at stake, players like Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield, with 10 or more years of experience, believe in the first- and second-year players. Plus, a lot of interesting statistics and quotes between the Packers and Vikings.

Defensive tackle Kevin Williams was a first-round pick of the Vikings in 2003. Sunday will mark the end of his 10th regular season, but he's hoping it isn't the final game of the season.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield joined the Vikings the following year after five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The Green Bay matchup will mark the end of Winfield's 14th NFL season.

Combined, Winfield and Williams have 24 years of NFL experience. That's still 1½ times as much as the eight 2011 draft picks and three times as much as the eight 2012 draft picks still on the 53-man roster. As it turns out, Winfield and Williams have the same amount experience as the 16 draft picks from the last two years still on the roster.

So, as the wily veterans of the defense approach one of their final opportunities to make the playoffs, you might think a speech to the 16 draft picks of the last two years or the 33 players who have joined the Vikings since the start of the 2011 calendar year would be in order to stress the importance and sometimes fleeting opportunities to make the postseason. The seasoned vets think otherwise.

"I don't think we need to stress that. We can focus in on this Sunday, the Green Bay Packers. That's where our minds are at. The coaches have been stressing all week, so it's not about the opportunities," Winfield said after Friday's practice. "Guys know what's at stake, know we need to go out there and win this game to get in, so I like our chances."

Winfield made an impassioned speech after the second week of the season, letting players know the importance of taking every game seriously to get in position to make the playoffs. Defensive end Jared Allen gave a similar speech after the Vikings lost to Green Bay on Dec. 2, and the team has gone on a three-game winning streak since then. At the time, Allen said the team was going into a win-or-be-done mentality for their final four games.

The Packers game will mark the fourth game in that stretch and the Vikings likely will need to win it to make the playoffs at 10-6. A 9-7 record would require losses from the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Chicago Bears for the Vikings to still make the playoffs.

In Williams' second season and Winfield's first with the Vikings, they went 8-8 and made the playoffs, despite "backing into the postseason" with two straight losses to end the year. Ironically, they played at Lambeau Field in the first round and pulled off a 31-17 upset – a scenario that could be in play if the Vikings beat Green Bay at Mall of America Field Sunday.

"Always a chance to make the playoffs means more," Williams said. "You don't want to be playing meaningless football in December. That's what you always hear older guys say. It holds true. We're playing for something this week and you're definitely going to hold that in the back of your mind and playing a little extra harder."

Three weeks ago, the Packers put the Vikings' playoff hopes on life support after a 23-14 Green Bay win at Lambeau Field that featured 13 unanswered second-half points as Minnesota's Christian Ponder threw two costly second-half interceptions in the red zone.

That loss sparked the sense of urgency – Allen called it stress – for the remaining games, and a second round of speeches.

"I think it resonated with our players," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "Jared talked to them and Zygi (Wilf) came in and talked to them. For the young guys who have never been in this situation, and we've got a bunch of first- and second-year guys on our team, I guess just to hear veteran players talk about their experience and how guys can play an entire career and never get this close to the playoffs, if you hear that from guys that have achieved a lot in this league, like a Jared or Antoine or Kevin or an Adrian (Peterson), it has to resonate to some degree and it obviously has for our guys."

Since then, the team has won three straight games and built a mountain of confidence. Players genuinely expect to beat the Packers, who have already clinched the NFC North Division title and a playoff spot, as well winning their last five meetings against Minnesota.

For Winfield, it's as simple as winning begets more winning.

"Winning breeds confidence. When you're winning games, guys expect to win. They prepare harder and it's fun," he said. "We know what's at stake. We're at home playing against our division rivals with the chance to go to the playoffs. We'll be ready."

Since that 2004 playoff win over the Packers at Lambeau Field, Winfield and Williams have seen the dismissal of head coaches Mike Tice and Brad Childress. There have been five seasons that ended without a postseason berth and only two – a one-and-done in 2008 and an NFC Championship Game entry that came up short in 2009.

Many of the Vikings' veterans have said this week that it was sometime around training camp or the start of the regular season that they started to believe the playoffs were possible less than a year after finishing 3-13. They credited the infusion of talented youth and seeing the young guys in action.

To beat the Packers, it will take a combined effort. It will take the 16 draft picks and 33 players acquired over the last two years and players like Winfield, Williams and Allen, who have nine years or more of NFL experience – and everyone in between.

After 15 games, the veteran leaders don't feel the need for speeches. By now, the rookies are no longer considered rookies. They are seasoned, and the veterans believe they are prepared.

"We know what's at stake and it's a rival game – that says enough in itself," Williams said.

"We can get it done. If we execute and do what we're supposed to do, we can beat anybody."

QUICK SLANTS

  • How to preserve a veteran? Winfield is dealing with a fractured bone in his hand suffered in Sunday's win over the Houston Texans and has played through a sore knee. He says he hasn't practiced in two months, which has been key to keeping the rest of his body fresh. "I love it. Besides the hand and knee, this is the best my body's felt since I've ever played football," he said. "I haven't practiced the last two months. I've just studied film, go through the walkthroughs and play on Sundays. I can last another three or four years."

  • The Vikings are improved, for sure, but are they a playoff team? "If we don't win it, (the Texans) game doesn't matter," Ponder said. "You're a playoff team only if you're in the playoffs. That's how you're a playoff team."

  • Blitzing Aaron Rodgers is a risky proposition and Winfield knows it. Rodgers is second in the NFL with 13 touchdown passes when facing a blitz of five men or more (Tom Brady leads that stat with 20 TD passes against a blitz). "Blitzing (Rodgers), it's tough because they take so many chances," Winfield said. "Their offense is a run-and-shoot. They're trying to go vertical, go down the field, throw a lot of fades. Sometimes you have to try to mix it up, though."

  • Left tackle Matt Kalil picked up a $10,000 fine for a late hit on a Texans player after a play was already done. Kalil went through the first 13 weeks of the season with only two penalties, an unnecessary roughness and a false start. In the last three week, however, he has had four penalties – holding, ineligible player downfield, unnecessary roughness and a false start. Two of those came last week, raising the question of whether his illness had anything to do with his first game with multiple penalties.

    "Maybe, just in being a little sloppy, especially this last week – I had two penalties, which is rare for me," he said. "I haven't been getting too many penalties in games. I guess one was just trying to get after it and hitting a guy too late. The other one I guess was not from practicing and being on count with the snap, so I got a little false start. It's expected when all you do is just study. I didn't practice at all. I didn't lift any weight. I didn't really do anything. I just played in the game. It wasn't routine from what I've been doing this whole year."

  • Kalil's six penalties are tied for fourth on the team with A.J. Jefferson. Jared Allen and Everson Griffen are tied for second with seven, and Phil Loadholt leads the team with eight.

  • Texans running back Arian Foster bought his offensive linemen Segways. Adrian Peterson hasn't given his offensive linemen gifts yet (although he might bring them to the Pro Bowl with him).

    "He'll get us something. He'll take care of us, especially if he gets that record," Kalil said, referring to Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing mark. "I might get a car. We'll see."

    Said John Sullivan: "All I'm hoping for is a good performance from him and our entire offense and the entire team, and the playoff berth is all we really care about at this point. I don't care about presents."

  • The Packers have won 12 consecutive division games and tied a club record last week with 55 points scored at Lambeau Field. Rodgers has won five in a row against the Vikings with a 122.6 rating on 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. The Packers are 27-0 when Rodgers starts and has a 115 rating or better.

  • For all the criticism of Ponder, some of it warranted, he is 6-1 in his last seven home games. Packers CB Tramon Williams defended Ponder, saying the loss of Percy Harvin has affected the offense. "Obviously, from the situation that he's in, he's doing a good job for his team. A lot of people were saying he was struggling early in the season, but look at his situation: His playmaker's done, Percy's gone," Williams said. "He's got some other good receivers out there but that offense is run through Adrian and Percy. When you lose a guy like Percy, you can't replace it."


    Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.


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