Victories are victories in the National Football League. It doesn't matter where the points come from, as long as the number next to your team's name is bigger than the number next to the other team's name when the final gun goes off, you get credit for a victory.
On Sunday afternoon at Ford Field, the Minnesota Vikings didn't put up a single offensive touchdown. They were outgained offensively by over 100 yards (341 to 227). They only converted three of twelve third-down situations. They averaged more yards per running play (4.5) than they did per passing play (3.6). Yes, Adrian Peterson was in full-on beast mode in racking up his first 100-yard game since his surgery, and the Vikings did attempt to stretch the field with Jerome Simpson (with two long, helpful pass interference penalties coming from a couple of those plays), but overall, this was probably the Vikings' worst offensive performance of the 2012 season.
Yet when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, the Minnesota Vikings left Ford Field with a 3-1 record and sole possession of first place in the NFC North for the first time since the final day of the 2009 regular season. That's January 3, 2010 if you're scoring at home. And why is that the case? Because, when the offense was down, the other two phases of the game picked them up and carried them to a team victory.
I have to start with the special teams, because that's what won this football game for the Vikings today. Obviously, we have the big Percy Harvin kickoff return that started things off on the right foot for the Vikings, but there's everything else as well. Blair Walsh has turned into a weapon for the Minnesota Vikings. How so? All five of his kickoffs went for touchbacks on Sunday afternoon. That gave him a total of 20 touchbacks through the first four games of the season. Last season, through sixteen games, Ryan Longwell managed 19 touchbacks. Walsh is on pace to, literally, more than quadruple that number. In the National Football League, every yard counts, and forcing the opposition to start out at the 20-yard line on every drive rather than allowing them to gain field position is a huge deal.
How about that last punt by Chris Kluwe? Between the beautiful English that Kluwe put on that punt and the hustle of the Vikings' special teams players, they forced Matthew Stafford and the Lions to try to go 98 yards in 1:42 with no time outs remaining. . .something that they proved to be unable to do.
Lastly, how about Marcus Sherels? When we think of Sherels, we usually think of a guy that's steady, going to get the job done, but isn't generally spectacular on returns. (On a team with Percy Harvin, it's hard to be recognized as a "spectacular" return man.) But that 77-yarder he had the first time the Viking touched the ball in the second half was, indeed, spectacular. Several broken tackles, a nice change of direction, and an entire cadre of white uniforms escorting him to the end zone. Special teams are an huge part of the game in the National Football League, and the Minnesota Vikings illustrated that today.
The defense did an outstanding job on Sunday as well. The Lions, regarded as one of the more explosive offenses in the league and a group that put up 41 points in Tennessee in Week 3, didn't make it into the end zone until there were under three minutes left in the football game. They sacked Matthew Stafford five times, including an incredible speed rush by Everson Griffen on a fourth down play deep in Minnesota territory in the fourth quarter. (I'm sure Stafford appreciated the play call that left the blind side defensive end completely unblocked on that one.) They held the almighty Megatron, Calvin Johnson, to season lows in both catches (5) and yards (54). Johnson also had a drop of a touchdown pass thanks to a hit by Harrison Smith which, coupled with an even bigger drop by a wide open Brandon Pettigrew on the next play, forced the Lions to settle for a field goal.
Sure, the Lions helped the Vikings out by dropping quite a few passes. . .and yes, Stafford went for over 300 yards against the Vikings. It took him 51 pass attempts to get his 319 yards. For the most part, Detroit receivers were shut down right after they caught the ball. We mentioned the Vikings' paltry third-down conversion rate earlier, but the Lions were only 6-for-16 in the same situations. On top of that, some different players were stepping up for the Vikings as well. Of the team's five sacks, Jared Allen did get one, but the other four were evenly split between Griffen (the one I mentioned and the sack of Stafford on the game's final play) and. . .Letroy Guion? Yes, big #98 had two sacks on the afternoon as well.
The final result was the Minnesota Vikings, a team that's smack in the middle of a rebuilding phase for the franchise, going out as an underdog for the second straight time and imposing their will on the team on the other side of the ball. They've done it against two teams that made the post-season for the NFC last season, one of which made it to the NFC Championship Game. Two teams that were supposed to "expose" the Vikings as being an average to below average football team. And with 12 games remaining in the 2012 season, the Vikings have already matched their win total from their tumultuous 2011 campaign.
They won a game against a divisional opponent for the first time since September of 2010.
They won a road game against a divisional opponent for the first time since. . .hope you're sitting down. . .Brett Favre's return to Lambeau Field in 2009.
They've won consecutive games for the first time since Leslie Frazier's first two games as an NFL head coach, when they defeated the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills.
Now, with the Tennessee Titans on the horizon, we get an opportunity to learn something new about the Minnesota Vikings. We get an opportunity to see how they react to a little bit of success. With one of the youngest teams in the National Football League wildly exceeding expectations thus far (at least in terms of their won-loss record), it will be interesting to see how Leslie Frazier and company get this team to remain focused going into a game that they'll be expected to win, in front of their home crowd. If the first four weeks of the season so far are any indication, I expect that the coach and his staff will have this team focused and ready to go.
The Minnesota Vikings are 3-1, and in sole possession of first place in the NFC North for the first time in 1,001 days. And we, as fans, should be enjoying the heck out of it. After last season, nobody deserves to be pleasantly surprised more than we do.