Sportswriters: Vikings WIN! Who’st best in NFL? Gophers are 8-2!

Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times  sports editor Gary Larson, former Princeton Union-Eagle editor and sports columnist Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson, a Milaca graduate. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings defeated the Washington Redskins 34-27 Nov. 7 at Mall of America Field. Was that a sign that the Vikings are improving and have a shot at winning some more games the rest of the way or was it a case of one poor team outlasting another poor team?

-Dorr: The Redskins have a fairly potent offense and the Minnesota defense did a good job in the second half of shutting that offense down after Washington had scored on its first five possessions. So that was impressive, especially after the defense had kicked away three possible wins this season (three leads lost in the last minute of those three games). I’m not sure if the win shows improvement or if it was just a one-game thing. The offense, and Christian Ponder, played well. It would be too bad if his injury keeps him out of the next game. The team could easily have five wins, instead of two, and then we wouldn’t be talking about possible improvement. But, it’s likely the team will have trouble winning more than one or two more games, UNLESS there is improvement. The Washington win gave glimmer of hope and it was fun to be part of the loud crowd at the team’s indoor studio.

-Marxhausen: The Vikings were in a shootout with the Redskins, showing a promising offense and a struggling defense. Was it a sign? Absolutely not. The Minnesota Vikings have been the same team all year, with the capabilities to win these tough games. They have been on the short end of the stick more often than not. This was a case of a poor team outlasting another poor team, with their combined record being 4-12. The Vikings need to win some games the rest of the season, or people will be losing their jobs. They have to show the organization that they are worth keeping around next season, so, impressions have to be made now while the time to shine is ripe.

-Larson: Let’s put the teams’ lousy records aside for a moment. It was an exciting game which wasn’t decided until the final seconds and ended in a Viking VICTORY! Minnesota fans got to see star runner Adrian Peterson shine on a some plays and quarterback Christian Ponder play like a No. 1 draft pick. And, I’ll bet thousands of hands were in the air across the state after each of those four sacks by the defense in the second half. But, the game was likely the Vikings’ one shining moment in a season of disappointment. A season that will end with one more victory, for a total of three.

-Johnson: This was a case of one poor team outlasting another poor team.  The Vikings did look better as a team and finally finished out a game for a victory but the Redskins (3-6) have some issues on defense and are still trying to get quarterback Robert Griffin III to his 2012 form after offseason knee surgery.  Some key injuries around the league have made the remaining schedule more appealing for the Vikings.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will likely miss the Nov. 24 game when the Packers host the Vikings.  Chicago cycled through a couple of quarterbacks because of injuries in the past week or so and visits the Metrodome Dec. 1.  Let’s hope the Vikings can play well against these ailing teams.  This week, however, doesn’t look good when they travel to Seattle to take on the 9-1 Seahawks.

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•Question: So far this season the National Football League has been full of surprises. Teams expected to be powers have struggled and games have been hard to predict. What are your thoughts on the season thus far and who, at this point, would  be your picks to be playing in the Super Bowl?

-Dorr: I can’t remember an NFL season for years and years that has produced so many surprising results. How do you explain Jacksonville beating Tennessee, or the 49ers not scoring in the second half (with everyone’s new hero, Colin Kaepernick, stinking up the joint again) and losing 10-9 to Carolina, or New Orleans scoring 49 points in a 49-17 win over Dallas after the Cowboys led 10-7? Are there any real good teams in the league? It doesn’t appear so. Veteran prognosticators have terrible records this year because of all the upsets. I can’t begin to give a prediction on who will be in the Super Bowl. Ask me again in another month.

-Marxhausen: The race in the AFC West between Kansas City (9-0) and Denver (8-1) has been most electrifying story so far.  With that said, the AFC playoff picture is becoming pretty clear. Denver and Kansas City are highly likely to finish at the top of the ladder, with New England looking strong in the AFC East with tight end Rob Gronkowski back. Indianapolis has been faltering as of late, but looks in control of its division, with Houston and Jacksonville at the bottom and Tennessee losing starting quarterback Jake Locker. Cincinnati is the team to beat in the AFC North. The NFC is an entirely different story. In the NFC East Dallas and Philadelphia are tied at 5-5 and the Giants and Redskins are only a game and one-half behind. In the NFC North Green Bay has lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers for some time with a shoulder injury, bringing the Packers to a halt. The Chicago Bears have lost quarterback Jay Cutler to an injury and Detroit is looking to cash in on these injuries. The Lions can use the next few weeks to isolate themselves at the top and hold their ground. In the NFC West the Seattle Seahawks (9-1) have an edged over San Francisco (6-3), while the NFC South has a battle going on between New Orleans (7-2) and Carolina (6-3). For the Super Bowl my picks would be Denver from the AFC against Seattle of the NFC.

-Larson:  I’m batting a little over .500 in my NFL picks this season and I’m normally around .633. Kansas City and the New York Jets have been the biggest surprises in the AFC, with Houston and Baltimore the biggest disappointments. Detroit and Carolina have been the biggest surprises in the NFC, with Atlanta and San Francisco the big disappointments. As usual, injuries have played a big role for several teams. Denver vs. New Orleans is my Super Bowl pick.

-Johnson: The Kansas City Chiefs have to be the biggest surprise, going 9-0 so far. I predicted the New York Giants and the Packers would be doing much better than they have. It is interesting that the New Orleans Saints went from a 37-11 record from 2009-2011 under head coach Sean Peyton, to a 7-9 record last year after Peyton’s suspension.  The Saints are now back to a 7-2 record with Peyton back at the helm.  Is this coincidence or can the head coach make that much of a difference?  I think so and Peyton is a good example.  My Super Bowl picks would still include the Denver Broncos for the AFC and would now have to be the New Orleans Saints for the NFC.

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•Question: The University of Minnesota football team is 8-2 and ranked 25th in the country in one poll following its 24-10 victory over Penn State Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. 1. What are your thoughts on the victory over Penn State? 2. How surprised are you that the Gophers have won four straight Big Ten games and are 8-2?

-Dorr: First of all, I don’t think the Gophers should be ranked. And remember, I’m a loyal Minnesota fan and have been for 64 years. Still, what they have done is great. What they have done the past four weeks, after horrible games against Iowa and Michigan, is make plays when they had to, as well as getting some breaks they haven’t gotten in past years. They made those timely plays against Penn State and recovered fumbles on the Nittany Lions’ first play and last play of the game, the last one coming when it looked as though Penn State would score and cut the lead to seven. And yes, I’m very surprised that the Gophers have won four in a row in the conference and are 8-2, especially after going 0-2 in the first two Big Ten games. But give the team credit – they have earned those wins and have made some huge plays on fourth down, most of those coming from the right arm of Philip Nelson. Now Gopher fans can dream about a win over Wisconsin Nov. 23 after an open date, and thus a better bowl game.

-Marxhausen: The victory over Penn State was amazing to watch. The Gophers looked in control of the game the entire time. They limited their turnovers to only one fumble and completed 9 of 17 third-down plays and 3 of 3 fourth-down plays. They looked like the team from when running back Marion Barber III played for them. I am surprised at the Gophers’ success and I have to eat my own words. I predicted a 6-6 record for Minnesota, with the Gophers barely making bowl eligible status, but they have sprouted to an 8-2 record and show they can compete in tough games. The remaining schedule has Wisconsin at home and Michigan State on the road. If Minnesota were to somehow beat those two, it would likely attain Bowl  Championship Series consideration. I don’t think that will happen, but the possibility is there.

-Larson:  Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson’s ability to throw and run (186 yards passing, 40 yards rushing), the running of  junior back David Cobb (139 yards – his fourth straight 100+yards rushing game), the punting of sophomore Peter Mortell (46.0 average on four punts) and timely plays on defense were keys for Minnesota, which won a fourth straight Big Ten game for the first time since 1973. I’m not surprised Minnesota has won four Big Ten games in a row and is 8-2….I’m stunned. Virtually every pre-season prediction had the Gophers finishing last in the Big Ten Legends Division, with one victory.

-Johnson: The Gophers continued to impress as they rolled through Penn State.  Quarterback Philip Nelson had a few big plays and running back David Cobb had a great game on the ground.  Minnesota’s defense also had a big fumble recovery at the end of the game to seal the victory.  Indications are that with the recent wins the Gophers have captured the attention of a few big name recruits.  Frank Ragnow, an offensive tackle who is considered a four-star recruit, stated after Saturday’s win that he is now considering Minnesota more seriously.  The road doesn’t get much easier for the Gophers. They host the 7-2 Wisconsin Badgers Nov. 23, then travel to Michigan State to take on the 8-1 Spartans.  A win in either of those games would be great.

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Do you have an opinion on this week’s question? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to editor.millelacscotimes@ecm-inc.com or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.

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