Being a fan of the Minnesota Vikings can be a frustrating affair at times. And in recent seasons, most of the time. The issues this team has had for most of the last 10-15 years have been maddeningly consistent. it doesn't matter who the coach is, who is running the front office, or who is on the roster.
The Vikings, for the most part, have been unable to do the following:
1. Win in the division.
2. Win on the road.
3. Beat teams they're 'supposed to beat'.
4. Put a game away.
5. Beat Green Bay.
Slowly but surely, one by one, the Vikings are destroying these character traits, and forging a new identity under coach Mike Zimmer. Let's take a closer look:
1. Win in the division: With just over half the season gone, the Vikings are assured of a .500 record in divisional play, as they have swept the Lions and have beaten the Bears in Chicago. No really guys, they did! Even or better in the division hasn't happened since 2009, and with three games remaining, they have an excellent shot to go 4-2 or better. In the NFL, it's pretty simple--if you can win your divisional games, or at least get to .500, the chances of you going to the playoffs are pretty decent. If you can't win your divisional games, you're probably not going to the playoffs.
2. Win on the road: Winning on the road is just as important as winning your divisional games, and the Vikings have had major issues away from home. After back to back road losses in San Francisco and Denver to open the season, it seemed like that was still going to be a problem. But since then, they've ripped off three straight road victories, to include two within the division. They aren't out of the woods yet, though, as they have three tough road games remaining--Atlanta, Arizona, and Green Bay, and those games could go either way. As the season progresses, things are coming into focus for the Vikings and their three remaining road opponents, and what I would have assumed were two losses when the season started have turned into three games that the Vikings can win. I'm not saying they will, but this team is capable of beating anyone right now, anywhere.
3. Beat teams they're 'supposed to beat'. This is a bit more nebulous a statistic than counting the easily quantifiable wins or losses. But for years, it seems, the Vikings have had this habit of either playing up or down to the level of their competition. In games most people thought the Vikings wouldn't or couldn't win, they play at a high level. But in games against teams they're supposed to beat, the Vikings can never seem to put that team away, and especially in recent seasons, say since 2001 or so, they find agonizing ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Being a Vikings fan in this era has become a rationalization in hope and 'woulda, coulda, shoulda', and that formula has equated to squadoosh come playoff time. This year, though, the Vikings are beating teams deemed as inferior, and as such, are now 7-2.
4. Put a game away. This blends in with the paragraph above, but it applies when the Vikings were both favored and the underdog. Again, how many times have we seen the Vikings jump out to a two score lead, but as the game wore on, the opponent keeps grinding, gets a score here, the Vikings whiff on a scoring opportunity there, they can't kill the clock, and before you know it there's 2:00 left to play, and the game is in the balance? And suddenly, a game you thought the Vikings had controlled for most of the day was now slipping out of their hands. Yesterday in Oakland, I was getting that sense of dread again. Between a dropped touchdown by Kyle Rudolph and a couple of missed field goals, the Vikings found themselves walking the tight rope again, and we've seen it this season, especially in the last four games prior to yesterday.
A game that should have been at least 30-14 half way through the 4th quarter was only 23-14, the Raiders had the ball deep in Vikings territory, there were over two minutes remaining, and Oakland had all three timeouts. It felt like they would score a TD, stop the Vikings on a three and out, and get the ball with about 1:30 left, needing only a field goal to win, with Sebastian Janikowski lurking. I don't mean to be a pessimist, but we've seen this script play out dozens, if not hundreds of times before. Only this time, the ageless Terence Newman intercepted Derek Carr in the end zone, and the offense put the dagger into Oakland with Adrian Peterson's 80 yard TD scamper moments later. The script was flipped, and man, was it refreshing to see.
The Vikings have found ways to win against teams like the Lions and the Rams, and are becoming a pretty resilient bunch. That's great to see, don't get me wrong, because these wins just a couple seasons ago would have been losses. And like we always say, winning ugly is still winning. But putting teams away is a sign that you're going from the 'low rent district', as Zim Tzu has called it, and are getting ready to close on a house in Eliteville. This was an important step the Vikings took yesterday, especially on the road, and one that cannot be stressed enough.
5. Beat Green Bay. One hurdle remains, and that's the Green Bay Packers, who have pretty much owned the division since it was renamed the North from the Central. At the end of 2009, with two Brett Favre revenge wins in their pocket, the Vikings had drawn even with the Packers in the all time series, at 48-48-1, and the rivalry between these two franchises was as white hot and bitter as ever. Since then, though, this has been a rivalry in name only, as Green Bay has dominated the Vikings, going 9-1-1 in the last 11 games. It's great that the Vikes are 7-2 and in first place, don't get me wrong. And as a fan, it's not wrong to be happy about this development, because success has been tough to find around these parts. But as Mike Zimmer said yesterday when asked what being 7-2 and in first place means, right now it means nothing. Nine games does not a season make, and until the Vikings can beat the Packers, the division still goes through Green Bay.
That final brass ring, though, is squarely within arms reach. Since 2010 it's felt, more often than not, that the only way the Vikings could beat Green Bay was with the Vikings playing a perfect game, and the Packers playing well below their capabilities. The talent disparity has been pretty vast, and the Packers were always an uphill battle. In weighted boots. Trudging through thick mud. Drunk.
Now? The Packers are reeling, looking disorganized on offense, and just average on defense. They've lost three straight, and there is discord in Cheeseville. The talent between the two organizations, both on the field and with the coaching staffs, is as close as it has been since 2009. This upcoming game is Three Demons In One for the Vikings--a winnable division game against the Packers, and a victory Sunday changes things for both franchises, in a multitude of ways.
Ways we'll discuss next Monday, hopefully. But for now, it's Packers week.
Skol Vikings, beat the Packers.