When the NFL released the 2012 schedule, Minnesota at St. Louis in Week 15 was about as far as could be from the anticipated list of December games that would help decide the playoff pool.
The Rams, after all, just finished the worst five-year stretch in league history with 65 losses from 2007-11. The Vikings followed their 2010 meltdown and 6-10 finish with a franchise-worst-tying 3-13 record.
High draft picks never hurt, but there weren't obvious reasons for the rest of the pro football world to believe these teams could contend for a playoff spot this deep into the season. Here they are, though, still among a large group of teams with legitimate opportunities to qualify for the postseason.
"It's a really good feeling. Obviously, in the past couple of years, we've been through some pretty tough times," Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said. "It wasn't a lot of fun last year at this time. Weren't a lot of smiles in the locker room, on the practice field. But to put three in a row and to win some games, it just changes the whole attitude and makes it a lot more enjoyable to come to work."
The Rams (6-6-1) have lost once in their last five games since they headed into their bye week at the midpoint of the season with a 45-7 defeat at home to New England. Their 24-all tie at San Francisco on Nov. 11 was the first sign this team might not be fading down the stretch like it has for most of the last 10 years.
"Nobody told us we couldn't go out there and try to win games. So that was our approach," said coach Jeff Fisher, who took over this season after a long run with Tennessee and a year off.
When asked on a conference call this week how the organization has balanced striving for competitiveness in the present while still building a future contender, Fisher recited a startling statistic that 24 players on the roster for the 2011 season opener are out of the NFL now.
"We're not there yet. We have a lot of work to do. But we're very fond of this team right now, just because of the way it's responded," Fisher said. "And it understands that it's OK to come to work and have fun. And when it's time to put the fun aside and get to work, we do that."
The Vikings (7-6) have parlayed Adrian Peterson's remarkable post-surgical performance and six wins in seven games inside their noisy dome into a push for the playoffs themselves. They beat San Francisco decisively on Sept. 23 to get the league's attention and, despite some bad games by quarterback Christian Ponder, have managed to avoid losing any more than two in a row.
Chicago and Seattle, both 8-5, and Washington and Dallas, both 7-6, are the teams ahead of Minnesota and St. Louis in the chase for two NFC wild-card spots. The Vikings lost to Seattle and Washington, putting them in a tough spot for tiebreakers.
"I'm trying to express to these young guys that you don't get the chance to go to the playoffs very often. At least I haven't. I've only been there three times in nine years," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said. "If you don't know what playoff football is all about, it's the only thing we play for."
While the Vikings, like the Rams, have a lot left to do on their rebuilding project, they've similarly been able to enjoy some ahead-of-schedule success. Really, when young players are holding down so many positions on the field, what's the harm in winning? Coach Leslie Frazier has continually pointed to April 23, the date when nearly the entire roster showed up to begin the spring strength and conditioning program.
"We're building off of that foundation. Now obviously we haven't been perfect, but we are much improved because of what we did this offseason," Frazier said.
While Bradford was the first overall draft pick -- Ponder went 12th last year -- the Rams have stayed patient with their young quarterback and seen progress this season after a second-year regression. That could give the Vikings, who have so far steadfastly supported Ponder, reason for optimism he'll be able to escape the mechanical flaws he's alarmingly showed in his skill set this season.
The Vikings are all about featuring Peterson, but they need a lot more from Ponder to not only stay in the race this year but become an elite team in the future.
"We anticipate him just continually getting better and playing better over this ballgame and the remaining two ballgames after St. Louis. We're not looking to next season or trying to figure out who's going to be our starter next season," Frazier said.
The Rams have just been trying to figure out how to slow down Peterson, who is 400 yards away from a 2,000-yard season. Keeping him on the sideline while draining the clock with their offense is one way. Tackling would be another, though easier said than done.
"You treat everyone the same. You treat everyone with respect, but you kind of know what kind of beast you have across the field from you," Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said.
The Vikings understand that, too.
"I don't know if he is human or not," Ponder said.
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