With as much success as the Minnesota Vikings had last year, there are a couple things that, had they turned out differently, we might have seen a different ending to the 2017 season.
One of them, and arguably the biggest ‘what if’ from last year, was the Dalvin Cook injury.
In just three games, rookie running back Dalvin Cook had put himself smack dab in the middle of ‘Rookie Of The Year’ conversation. He was one of the leading rushers in the NFL, and had managed to eclipse a career start of Adrian Peterson, the future first ballot Hall of Famer he had replaced:
Cook had really helped the Vikings overcome the loss of Sam Bradford, and was a critical part of Minnesota getting off to a 2-1 start. Case Keenum had yet to blossom into a reliable starter, as he had one pretty bad game against Pittsburgh and a really great game against Tampa Bay. At that point of the season, he was still The Great Unknown...and lol Bradford was due back in a week or two.
Week four saw the Vikings struggling at home against Detroit. They were trailing 3-0 in the first half, and Keenum and the offense had struggled. But late in the second quarter the Vikings started leaning on Cook, and right before halftime he scored, and the Vikes took a 7-3 halftime lead.
Minnesota got the ball to start the second half, and the Vikes coughed it up on a Jerick McKinnon turnover on the Vikings side of the field. The Lions converted that into a field goal to pull within 7-6.
It seemed like the Vikings figured out that they were going to win on the legs of Cook, as the first play from the line of scrimmage after the Matt Prater kickoff was a handoff to the rookie running back. He took it off the right side for ten yards, and it looked like he had some open field to turn it into a gain of maybe 15 yards or more, just the spark the offense needed...and then grabbed his knee and fell to the turf in a heap. In the process of him grabbing at his knee, he fumbled the ball, the Lions recovered, and life became pointless and full of agony.
The Lions took over at the Vikes 29, scored a TD and converted a two point try five plays later. 14-7 Lions, and it might as well have been 40-7.
You could feel the air just get sucked out of US Bank Stadium, and everyone knew before the official reports came out that Cook had torn his ACL and his season was over. And many felt that the Vikes season had pretty much ended at that point, too. A backup QB, now a backup RB...the frustration was palpable for the Vikings and their fans.
But hey, Keenum turned into a superstar, the defense was stellar, and the combined efforts of McKinnon and Latavius Murray propelled the Vikes to the NFC Championship.
What if Cook doesn’t tear his ACL?
I think the Vikings win an ugly home game against Detroit, and move to 3-1. Assuming all other things remain equal, the Vikings finish the season at 14-2, and you could argue a healthy Cook alters the outcome of the Panthers game and roll to 15-1.
Whether it’s 14-2 or 15-1 is immaterial, as it’s still better than the Philadelphia Eagles 13-3 record, which means the Vikings get homefield advantage for the playoffs. They probably steamroll the Falcons in the divisional round, and then exorcise their NFC Championship demons the following week against the Saints, who beat the Eagles in Philly.
But let’s say the Eagles beat New Orleans, does Philly still steamroll Minnesota 38-7? No, I don’t think so. The Vikings at home were a different animal than the road Vikings, and I think they top Philly on the legs of Cook, and then meet the Patriots at home for the Super Bowl.
The Patriots looked eminently beatable in the Super Bowl, and the optimist in me likes to think Minnesota would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in front of their home fans. The Eagles gashed the Patriots on the ground for over 164 yards rushing, and you get the feeling Cook would have had a huge game.
With less playing time, Jerick McKinnon still leaves via free agency, but probably doesn’t get as big a deal he received from San Francisco.
In Minnesota, Dalvin Cook wins Rookie of the Year, Case Keenum is probably named Super Bowl MVP...and the Vikings, fresh off their first Super Bowl victory sign Keenum to a four year, $75 million contract, leaving plenty of room to sign Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs, Anthony Barr, and Danielle Hunter.