EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) -Antoine Winfield's concern about Minnesota's ability to contend for the playoffs appeared valid, even past the midpoint of this season.
Struggling badly to find consistency from their offense and production from their quarterbacks, the Vikings fell to 3-6 and were in no position to talk about playing in January.
Then came five straight victories that brought out all of their strengths, minimized their flaws, and thrust them into the race.
Last week's defeat to Washington might have ruined their opportunity to qualify for an NFC wild-card spot, but Winfield said Friday his outlook is more optimistic.
``We really have a lot of talent,'' he said. ``A lot of guys have made a lot of plays. We have a great core of veterans, but it's all about the strings. If you get on a run like we did, we need to start earlier. That's our thing. We need to start earlier in the year.''
Winfield worked out on his own during the winter and spring and opted not to participate in the organized team activities, which are not contractually required but are attended by almost everyone on the roster. He showed up for the mandatory minicamps, then went his own way again until training camp.
Winfield's contention was that the Vikings, after a 6-10 finish in coach Brad Childress's first season, hadn't done enough to improve through free agency.
He was especially worried about turning the quarterback position over to young Tarvaris Jackson, who despite a strong showing during the winning streak has still had an overall shaky first year as a starter.
But as Minnesota prepared to play on the road against Denver - seeking a win over the Broncos and a defeat of the Redskins by the Dallas Cowboys - the Vikings (8-7) were still in it as the final weekend of the regular season approached.
``This is my ninth year, and I've only been to the playoffs twice, so every year it's real important for me to get there to try to win a championship,'' he said.
Winfield will try to play on Sunday, but an injury to his shoulder might prevent that. He's listed as questionable and won't know until about two hours before kickoff whether the joint will feel strong enough.
After missing only two games over the past four seasons, Winfield has spent far more time on the inactive list than he's accustomed to.
He hurt his hamstring in the Oct. 28 game against the Philadelphia Eagles and reinjured it in November, costing him a total of four games. Then came the strained pectoral muscle near his shoulder on Dec. 17 against the Chicago Bears, keeping him out last week against the Redskins.
``When it happened, I'm like, 'Man, I never get hurt.' This is one of those years,'' Winfield said.
After grabbing eight of his 17 career regular-season interceptions the last two years, Winfield has picked off just one pass in 2007. Speed is a must for his size, listed liberally at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, and he does not appear as able in coverage as he used to.
He's tied for the team lead with 11 deflections this season, though, and he's still one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the league.
``I'm definitely going to get down there and get dirty,'' said Winfield, who gave himself a 'B' grade for his performance.
``I think he has played very well,'' Childress said. ``He still has an unbelievable, uncanny ability for his size to be able to wreak havoc on the run game off the edges, and he is fearless. Has he gotten beat with the the pass once or twice? Sure, he has, but you know what, there is not a corner in the National Football League that hasn't. The great thing about him is that he knows he is a good player, and he plays that way.''

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