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On Mental Toughness

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The Minnesota Vikings overcame more than some bad calls yesterday. They overcame recent history.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
Not pass interference, apparently.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

A long time ago, there was some pornography case being argued before the United States Supreme Court. During arguments, the definition of what porn was somehow came up. I don’t remember which justice said it, but in trying to define it he said something like ‘I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.’

I think the same could be said for mental toughness.

If you’re a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, it’s hard to not feel like the other shoe is going to drop. I mean look, I love this team. I’ve watched, followed, and cheered for them for more than 40 years, back to the days of the Purple People Eaters. I’ve written about them on this and other blogs since 2006, and it’s my fervent hope they win a slew of Super Bowls before I die.

But there’s a reason that this fanbase, almost to the person, thinks ‘just give me one before I die. That’s all I want.’

Because at some point, be it in a season or a game, the bottom falls out and this team folds. And it’s often in a manner that fathers talk to sons about for years, and those sons turn around and tell their sons and grandsons about.

It’s almost ingrained into us, young and old, and at times it’s as recognizable as the white horns on the purple helmets.

But this year, there’s a mental toughness about this team that doesn’t let adversity get in the way of their goal. Mike Zimmer has said repeatedly he wants a team that is tough both physically and mentally, and it was going to be put to the test the second half of the season.

Coming out of the bye, the Vikings had five games that were going to either make or break their season: at Washington, Rams at home, at Detroit, at Atlanta, at Carolina. How they fared in that stretch, barring a 2016-like season of injuries, would probably determine whether or not they won, the division, secured a wild card playoff spot, or missed the playoffs entirely.

So far, they’ve won the first three of those games, and in each one, there was a moment where you thought ‘this might be the moment where the game goes south.’ But in each instance, the Vikings overcame the moment, rebounded, and went on to win the game. Let’s take a look:

at Washington: Vikings are up 35-20, late third quarter. The Vikings have already dodged one Case Keenum interception, as the Redskins took the ensuing drive, went for it on 4th and six from the Vikes 32, and didn’t make it. But just two plays later Keenum throws his second interception to DJ Swearinger, who returned it down to the Vikings two yard line. Two plays later, Cousins runs the ball in, and it’s 35-27 with 14:45 to go, and one of the best comeback QB’s in the game on the other sideline. If we look back on the season, we might say the next drive was the turning point for this franchise this season, and I am 100% serious. If you doubt me, go back and watch it, as it pretty much is a visual definition of the word ‘clutch’. Case Keenum shook off his two bad picks and led the offense on a 12 play drive that ended in a Kai Forbath 53 yard field goal. It took almost seven minutes off the clock, and on the drive the offense converted three huge third downs, two of them coming on Keenum passes. For all intents and purposes, that sealed the game. It was as big time as big time gets.

Los Angeles Rams: Game is tied 7-7, late second quarter. For much of this game, the Vikings seemed like they were off a step. The Rams took the opening kickoff and punched the Vikings in the mouth, going 75 yards and taking a 7-0 lead. The Vikings answered by driving down to the Rams 29...and then due to penalities and poor execution, ended up with a 3rd and 32 from midfield. The Vikes later tied it up on a short field drive, but missed an opportunity to take the lead on a missed 48 yard field goal in the second quarter. That miss gave the Rams life, and right before halftime they were driving, down to the Vikings 11. On 3rd and four, Rams QB Jared Goff hit Cooper Kupp over the middle, and for a minute it looked like he was going to score. But at the one yard line, S Anthony Harris hit Kupp, stripped the ball, and recovered the fumble at the one. Vikings ball, threat averted, and instead of a 14-7 Rams lead right before halftime it’s 7-7 going to the locker room. In the second half, Minnesota takes control and goes on to win 24-7.

at Detroit: This was a game that felt, in many respects, like the Vikings were playing the Lions and the referees. Minnesota appeared to take control of this game with a Case Keenum SEED to Kyle Rudolph for a 22 yard score and a 20-3 lead with less than a minute to go in the half. But the Detroit Referees answered with 2 penalties on the Vikings, and a pretty unbelievable ruling on a 41 yard catch that shouldn’t have been by Kenny Golladay. The Lions score a TD, and instead of 20-3, it’s a frustrating 20-10 going in to the half, and the door is open for the Lions.

The Vikes seemed to close that door on their first drive of the second half, as they went 75 yards in four plays, and were once again up 17 points, 27-10. The Lions answered with a field goal, the Vikes got aggressive on the next drive, and went for the kill. Keenum threw a deep pass to Stefon Diggs, and this happened:

It seems like it was a pretty clear-cut pass interference, yet it wasn’t called. Instead of having the ball at about the Detroit 22 with another opportunity to put the game away, they have to punt. Lions get the ball back, and they kick another field goal. It’s now 27-16, and you kind of have an uncomfortable, old, familiar, gnawing in the back of your mind, could they really blow this feeling. Admit it, it’s okay.

Vikes get the ball back, and between a Ziggy Ansah sack and one of the more ridiculous taunting penalties called on Case Keenum you’ll ever see...

...the Lions are set up with a short field. Then this happened:

It’s one of those ‘are you kidding me’ TD’s that seem to happen against the Vikings at the most inopportune moments. It’s now 27-23 Vikings, and with over 14 minutes left, it was anyone’s game. And with as many things that had gone against Minnesota, it just felt like momentum was building for a Lions win.

Yet, the Vikings figured it out. The offense calmed down, and when they got the ball back, they drove down to just inside the Lions 40. They didn’t score, but they flipped field position and took over five minutes off the clock. The defense rose up and forced a three and out, and then the offense responded with a nine play drive that resulted in a field goal, giving the Vikings a seven point lead. It was also a big moment for K Kai Forbath, who earlier had a 53 yard field goal blocked (not his fault as the snap and hold was botched), and had missed an extra point (totally his fault).

And in games like this, a missed extra point always looms large. Because the Lions had one last chance to go down and tie the game, but Xavier Rhodes, who until this moment had played his worst game of the year, intercepted Matt Stafford on fourth down. that sealed the win and put a hammer lock on the rest of the NFC North.

It’s unfair to say the Vikings never win these types of games, because they have. But anecdotally, it feels like it’s an occasional one here and there, usually not in the same season, and never back to back to back, against three quality opponents, two of which were on the road. Oh, and they’ve done this without their starting QB and RB.

This season is far from over and anything can happen, but I don’t know that you can get more mentally tough than what the Vikings have shown these last three games.

Like the Supreme Court justice trying to define porn, I don’t know that I can give you a textbook definition of mental toughness, but I know it when I see it.

And for the last three weeks, I’ve seen it.