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Teddy Bridgewater can lift Vikings by seizing opportunity

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is not big on bravado or bluster, so you can forgive him for downplaying the significant juncture he has reached. He's a team player by both trade and temperament, a man happy to perform his role so long as it helps procure a victory. Bridgewater also is still a second-year pro trying to grow in a league that can be merciless on young signal callers. With that in mind, he may not yet be able to see that the next few weeks will go a long way toward defining his game.

The Vikings are about to kick off a key three-game stretch that easily could launch them into the playoff conversation when the second half of the season approaches. They'll get the Kansas City Chiefsthis Sunday, then head on the road to face the Detroit Lionsand Chicago Bears. Those three teams have a combined record of 3-12 thus far. In other words, this is Bridgewater's chance to show he can make enough plays to take his team to a higher level.

What we've seen in Minnesota's first four games is a promising quarterback operating as a game manager in an offense that is heavily reliant on Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson. That approach has gotten the Vikings to 2-2, but the NFC is so muddled that this squad could be primed to do more if Bridgewater can keep growing.

"Each game is important," Bridgewater said. "Right now, we want to focus on Kansas City, but we definitely want to get something going. We want to have some momentum going into the second half of the season."

It's no secret that the Vikings are built to bang. They've got Peterson back after he played in only one game last year following an indictment for reckless or negligent injury to a child. They've got an offensive coordinator in Norv Turner who is known for his willingness to pound the football with talented runners. They've also got a defensive-minded head coach in Mike Zimmer who, when asked about the importance of the Vikings establishing more balance between a passing attack that ranks last in the league and a running game that ranks second, said, "How are we in scoring points per game? That's what we care about."

It's a fair stance to take, but the Vikings also didn't just use a first-round pick on Bridgewater to watch him hand off to Peterson (Bridgewater only has two touchdown passes in four games). They took him because he had the chance to do some special things for this franchise. That's one reason why this upcoming stretch of games is so pivotal to both the Vikings and Bridgewater's development. This is the first real opportunity we'll have to see how he does when his team can make a statement.

Bridgewater never had that shot in 2014. He produced solid numbers in 13 games (12 starts) as a rookie (64.4 percent completion rate, 14 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions), but the Vikings weren't going anywhere without Peterson on the field. Minnesota also has been mystifying in the early parts of this year, as proven by road losses to San Francisco (a 20-3 defeat to a lousy team) and Denver (the Vikings allowed seven sacks in that contest). This squad needs to settle into a rhythm, and Bridgewater may very well have to be the man to get it there.

After all, it's not numbers that ultimately define quarterbacks. The inspirational moments they create with their play are what eventually determine how they're remembered. As Vikings guard Brandon Fusco said, "Teddy is a warrior. He's a positive guy, and no matter what happens, he can forget about the last play and go on to the next. We all have all kinds of trust in him to get the job done."

Given the way the Vikings want to play football, the best-case scenario over these next three games is that Bridgewater becomes something comparable to what Russell Wilson has been in Seattle. Wilson isn't asked to carry the Seahawks' fairly conservative offense; rather, his strength is producing when the moments become most critical. He hasn't needed to be a 4,000-yard, 40-touchdown passer, because the Seahawks have been blessed with a stout run game and a dominant defense. But when it's time to make a play, Wilson consistently thrives.

Now that Bridgewater is entering his 18th career game, he's reaching the point where that ability should become a bigger part of his own repertoire. Fusco said it's already apparent that his quarterback is maturing, because "you can tell he knows the offense better, and he's more comfortable with his reads." Zimmer added that Bridgewater "sometimes is careful with the football, but that's a good thing. He continues to do a good job with that. He did it last year and he's doing it this year. He'll continue to get better with it."

"I like the fact that I'm in total command of this team," Bridgewater said. "I feel like I'm in total command of the offense. I think I'm doing a great job of learning and seeing the game and reacting to what I see."

The most encouraging sign for Bridgewater this season is the way he played in that Denver loss. The Broncos' pass rush swarmed him relentlessly, but he didn't wilt as that contest went on. He wound up throwing a season-high 41 passes (completing 27 for 269 yards and a touchdown) and helping the team rally from a 20-10 deficit to tie things up at 20 late in regulation. Peterson certainly did his part to aid the comeback -- with a 48-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- but Bridgewater's mettle was on display, as well.

These next three weeks should offer easier challenges for the young quarterback. The Chiefs' defense has been incredibly disappointing despite the presence of star pass rushers like Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. The winless Lions keep finding ways to lose games, even though they possess more talent than their records suggests. And God only knows how the Bears have managed to win two straight. They started dumping personnel a few weeks ago, largely because that front office knows it's time for a major roster overhaul.

This is the time when opportunistic teams start stacking wins. It's also the moment when promising quarterbacks make their names. As Bridgewater said, "This is a team that's eager to be great. We have a tough coach, so we want to be a tough, physical team to match his personality. This is a team that is going to continue to try to get better each and every day."

It's a safe bet Peterson will play a huge role in that effort. It also will be interesting to see if the Vikings' offensive line can avoid the types of issues that Denver's fierce defense created a couple Sundays ago.

Most importantly, it's time to discover just how ready Teddy Bridgewater is to do more than simply manage games. It's time to see how prepared he is to do the things that separate the great quarterbacks in this league from the ordinary ones.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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