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Surprise package Vikings eye top spot in NFC North


By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - After their Super Bowl aspirations with quarterback Brett Favre ended in disappointment, the National Football League's (NFL) Minnesota Vikings looked like a team on the decline and destined for a spell of quiet rebuilding.

But heading into the midway point of their 2012 campaign, the Vikings are 5-2 and a victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday would send them, temporarily at least, to the top of the National Football Conference's North division.

A division featuring the Chicago Bears (5-1), Green Bay Packers (4-3) and Detroit Lions (2-4) is a challenging one for Minnesota to get out of but a foundation of solid defense is giving them a fighting chance.

The Vikings, who have claimed the scalp of the San Francisco 49ers among others this season, rank ninth in total defense, sixth in scoring defense and third in sacks.

The defensive formation preferred by head coach Leslie Frazier is one the Buccaneers should know well - the old 'Tampa 2' modified by new Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams.

"He's become much more comfortable with our players and what their abilities are," said Frazier.

"Just the way he was conducting himself with our players and in the meetings, he's really, really grown in the short time we've been together and he's going to get better and better and in turn, our defense will benefit from him."

Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has shown signs of improvement and Minnesota can also count on one of the NFL's top running backs in Adrian Peterson, who is ranked fourth in his position having put up 652 rushing yards.

The Bucs have been involved in some close battles in defeat having lost 41-34 at the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 24-22 at home to the Washington Redskins and 35-28 at home to New Orleans on Sunday.

Coach Greg Schiano has gained a reputation as being a tough-talking coach who demands maximum effort from his player right to the end of every game and Frazier says that defines the Bucs.

"They're in so many games, every week battling right to the very end. They play with a lot of energy across the board, on special teams, offense and defense, and that's been very impressive to see," said Frazier.

"We'll have to really rise up and match their intensity on Thursday."

(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)