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Five keys for Vikings to make a championship run

The Vikings thrived during the roughest part of their schedule, going 2-1 against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, with the latter two games on the road.

The Vikings thrived during the roughest part of their schedule, going 2-1 against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, with the latter two games on the road.

Now the Vikings will have arguably their easiest stretch coming out of the bye, when they play the Detroit Lions (1-6), Seattle Seahawks (2-5) and Chicago Bears (4-3) at the Metrodome.

After that, the Vikings face two division leaders or co-leaders: the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals. Their final three opponents -- Carolina Panthers, Bears and New York Giants -- are hard to gauge. Only the Dec. 28 game at Chicago could prove a real winter-weather challenge.

Here are five keys for the Vikings to make a championship run.

HOPE FOR HEALTH

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Other than Antoine Winfield's foot injury, the Vikings have been fairly healthy. Injuries are inevitable, but the Vikings need to do all they can to ensure that core players such as Adrian Peterson, Brett Favre and their Pro Bowl defensive linemen stay healthy, because the drop-off at each position is dramatic. Vikings coach Brad Childress might be wise to shelve Peterson and Favre for stretches when given a chance, although the temptation might be for the players to pile up the numbers.

DON'T LET UP

If ever a team could use a bye and home-dome advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, it would be the Vikings, with their 40-year-old quarterback. With their speed on both sides of the ball, the

Vikings are better suited to play indoors. The NFC's other top team, the New Orleans Saints, also plays in a dome, but the Vikings obviously would prefer the Metrodome over the Superdome. Divisional and conference games are key for tiebreakers. Only one of the Vikings' final eight games (Cincinnati) is against an AFC team. The Saints (7-0) have yet to lose, so they control their destiny, but they have three challenging games left -- at home against New England and Dallas and at Atlanta. If the Vikings can win their next three games, they should put themselves in great position for at least a first-round bye, which could take some pressure off the final three games of the season, two of which are on the road.

TACKLE, TACKLE, TACKLE

The Vikings' defense is ranked ninth on third downs, seventh against the run and second in the red zone. But no spin can alter the fact that the defense is 19th in yards allowed and 23rd against the pass. One failing has been inconsistent tackling. The players insist conditioning isn't an issue, even though the problems have occurred in the second halves of games. Though not solely to blame, starting safeties Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson have missed key tackles.

GET MORE CREATIVE

Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has done a nice job of keeping opposing defenses off balance, especially inside the red zone. Not surprisingly, because of Peterson and Favre, play-action passes have been effective, as well. But given the personnel, the Vikings should try to integrate their version of the wildcat offense more in the second half of the season. In theory, it would be great to "surprise" an opponent in the postseason. But practice is essential, and the Miami Dolphins have proved it can work consistently, even if the opponent knows what's coming.

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HOLD BACK HARVIN

Rookie Percy Harvin would obviously be a key part of the team's wildcat. Childress said Harvin could return some punts, too. All that said, the Vikings should closely monitor Harvin's snaps and touches, to ensure he's healthy when they need him most -- in the postseason. Harvin is tough -- he has played through a shoulder injury -- and he is fearless. But those qualities could increase his chances of being sidelined. It might sound like a contradiction to recommend the Vikings use the wildcat more while also limiting Harvin's overall use, but they don't necessarily need to make the wildcat a core part of their scheme. Just use it enough so the players are comfortable operating it. In addition, the team should consider giving some offensive snaps to Darius Reynaud to keep Harvin fresh for the playoffs.

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