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Are Minnesota Vikings playoff contenders?

The Minnesota Vikings went 7-9 last year under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer. Minnesota was expected by many pundits to finish last in the NFC North, but instead was able to leapfrog the struggling Chicago Bears who finished 5-11. It was a successful campaign for the Vikings despite the losing record, setting them up for an exciting 2015.

Minnesota has one of the best young quarterbacks in the game with Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater, who the Vikings traded up to grab with the last pick in the 2014 first round, proved to be a steadying hand for Zimmer’s club last year. After coming in to replace the injured Matt Cassel and ineffective Christian Ponder, Bridgewater played in 13 games, throwing for 2,919 yards and 14 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Bridgewater’s best game came against the Detroit Lions, when he completed 31 of 41 passes for 315 yards with a score and two picks.

The Vikings were also without their best player last year, running back Adrian Peterson. Due to some high-profile legal issues, Peterson only played in the season opener against the St. Louis Rams before being placed on the commissioner’s exempt list for the final 15 games with pay. Peterson has now been reinstated and is expected to report to training camp in late July.

So the question looms. Can Minnesota vault another notch and make its way into the NFC playoffs?

The Vikings will have to compete in a tough division once again. Last year, the Green Bay Packers won the NFC North behind the strength of Aaron Rodgers’ arm and a defense spearheaded by Clay Matthews Jr. and Julius Peppers. The same formula figures to apply in 2015, making Green Bay an almost impossible team to bet against in the division.

With this realization, the Vikings need to be pining for the wild card. Minnesota has gotten more explosive this offseason, getting Peterson back and trading for receiver Mike Wallace. The main question is will that be enough to overtake the Detroit Lions, who finished 10-6 last year and earned a wild card berth?

Detroit went through some pretty drastic changes on both sides of the ball, watching as center Dominic Raiola and defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley departed. To replace some of the production of Suh and Fairley, general manager Martin Mayhew traded a pair of mid-round picks for nose tackle Haloti Ngata. Ngata is aging, but remains a solid player in the middle.

If the Vikings can best the Lions, the wild card could be within their grasp. The woeful NFC South is likely going to send only one team to the playoffs, while the NFC West and NFC East divisions will beat each other up. If Bridgewater can continue to mature and cut down on his turnovers, Zimmer could have Minnesota playing well into January.

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