EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. Returning to practice after a seven-day break, Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan sat at his locker with his shirt and forehead dripping with sweat and said the first few plays during practice, "it's hard to get your wind back."
Sullivan, like most of his teammates, got away during last week's bye week. Sullivan spent part of his time off in South Dakota, hunting with Chad Greenway, Cullen Loeffler and Kyle Rudolph before returning home for a few days of relaxation.
For Sullivan, the bye came a bit later than he would like he prefers Week 9, splitting the season in half but it was no doubt beneficial to Minnesota.
"It's nice when you get a week off," Sullivan said. "I think our coaches do it the right way. They allow you to get away from football; get your mind off things and recharge yourself mentally, emotionally, physically. I appreciate that."
Recharged, refreshed and now refocused, the Vikings returned Monday, knowing the importance of the final six games. At a 6-4 heading into next weekend's game at division-leading Chicago, there's much to play for and Minnesota sees the potential in its final stretch of games. The Vikings believe the late bye, coupled with a win before the break has them primed for an important stretch run.
"They realize that their goals are right in front of them," coach Leslie Frazier said. "They seemed excited about getting back to work. I think to a man, they were really looking forward to getting back in this work environment."
Receiver Percy Harvin was unable to return to practice following the break with his sprained ankle, and receiver Michael Jenkins missed Monday with a foot injury, but Minnesota returned seemingly in good health, physically and mentally. The Vikings have been relatively healthy this season and the bye allowed a few players to heal some nagging injuries. Running back Adrian Peterson, who leads the league in rushing, also had the chance to recover.
But most of all, Minnesota focused on what's ahead.
"I think the sense of urgency is where it needs to be at, from the standpoint of what we have ahead of us," defensive end Jared Allen said. "I mean, look at the way the division is playing out. I mean, 10-6 might not be good enough if Green Bay stays (hot). But these next three games we have a lot riding on it, especially the Chicago game. Obviously the only game we're worried about is Chicago.
"But the overall scheme of things, I think everybody's focus is hey, it's a six-game season. Let's go out, everybody's fresh.' The coaches mentioned that. The bye week, where there were no incidents, everybody's back healthy, and strong. So I think everybody is focused."
Minnesota comes back with an important three-game span against teams in the NFC North, including back-to-back road games against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Four of the final six games are within the division with the home-and-home series against Chicago and Green Bay left.
The Vikings get a jump on the Bears with an extra day of practice before next week's game. Chicago played at San Francisco on Monday Night Football and have a short week of preparation, especially with Thursday likely being lost to the holiday.
Meanwhile, Minnesota has lost five straight games overall to the Bears, and lost 10 of its last 11 in Chicago.
"It would be huge," Allen said of beating Chicago this week. "And you got to take every game for what it is, and what they are. I mean, anybody would be dumb not to say this isn't a huge game for us. Again, it's not a make-or-break game, but it's a dang-crucial game for where we're trying to get to."
The Vikings seem energized after the bye week, but fighting for the playoffs is also a boost to a team that hasn't been in this position in over two years. For many players, they've never felt the pressure of making a playoff run.
"You live for the second half of the season to be able to control your own destiny, to be able to make a play for the playoffs, and that's exactly what we have in our hands," second-year quarterback Christian Ponder said. "We've got to be fully focused on what we're doing and handle it one week at a time. It's going to be fun. It's fun in November and December when you still have playoffs at stake."
Frazier is trying to bottle the momentum gained from the win against Detroit into the bye, which meant a season sweep of the Lions and a 2-0 start to division play, while also understating the first half of the season. Minnesota, for all of its surprise turnaround, is currently out of the playoff picture in the NFC because of losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two teams with identical records who have the head-to-head advantage over the Vikings.
"When we do get back on Wednesday, everything that has happened prior to the Chicago game, we have to block that," Frazier said. "No what-ifs, shoulda wouldas, none of that. Just come back and focusing on Chicago. We have no choice. That, to us, is our biggest game of the season because it's the next one. We have to be able to, if we're going to mature as a team, be able to narrow it down and focus on just that one game."
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