Any number of moments could be picked for when the Vikings’ 2016 season turned rotten, when the team’s offensive line curdled and myriad injuries drained the euphoria created by a 5-0 start.
The day when it seemed the season was finally, inexorably lost, though, was Nov. 24, 2016, when Sam Bradford’s last-minute interception set up Lions kicker Matt Prater’s game-winning field goal, handed the Vikings their fifth loss in six games and put them in second place in the division.
How interesting, then, to hear Vikings coach Mike Zimmer at a podium a year to the day later, talking about a team that had lost its top quarterback and running back for the season — just as it did last year — and all but secured an NFC North title with its seventh straight win.
“We’ve got a pretty resilient bunch,” Zimmer said. “They play hard together. [Offensive coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] does a great job, along with the other offensive coaches. They just like to go out and play.”
The Vikings have steamrolled over some of the same issues that caused them to trip a year ago, on their way to a 9-2 record and a division lead that grew to three games when they withstood the Lions’ comeback attempt in a 30-23 win on Thursday. They have the best record in the NFC behind the Eagles (who play host to the Bears on Sunday). A first-round bye, or even home-field advantage, is a legitimate possibility for a team that has put Bradford and Dalvin Cook on injured reserve.
This year’s group seems to be more resourceful on offense than last year’s squad, which was in the middle of an identity shift triggered by Shurmur’s addition to the offensive staff and Norv Turner’s eventual resignation. But the 2017 Vikings, Zimmer has said this week, are also better at bouncing back when they face adversity.
Teams change every year, and the complexion of this year’s locker room is undoubtedly different because of veteran additions such as quarterback Case Keenum, and tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. But there’s enough carryover from the 2016 to 2017 teams that the steel of this year’s team might have been forged in the fires of last season.
“I was talking to somebody about that earlier today,” Zimmer said Friday. “Maybe it’s good we went through some of the issues that we had last year. I think a lot of it is the players themselves, they’re pretty tough-minded guys.”
The Vikings will have a long weekend away from football before returning Monday to prepare for a trip to Atlanta and a game against the defending NFC champion Falcons.
They will hear plenty about how good they can be, especially as the prospect of them becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium gains national traction.
Zimmer will stick to his mission to keep his players focused on the here and now, and he sounded confident Thursday he’ll be successful doing it.
“My players are smart; they know what’s at stake,” Zimmer said after the game. ”After the bye, we talked about we had a three-game sprint. We were very fortunate to go 3-0 in that time. Now we’ve got a five-game schedule moving forward, but we’ve got to regroup after this. We’ve got two extremely tough road games back-to-back and then we finally get back to U.S. Bank Stadium.”
And if the Vikings should drop one of those two games, against the Falcons or the Panthers, don’t assume that means a slide is coming. Last year might have taught them about what they need to do to stop it.
“I think this team understands what they have ahead of them and the challenge that they have that particular week,” Zimmer said after the game. “They know that this thing’s not going to be easy, but the defense has an awful lot of confidence in the offense now and I believe the offense has a lot of confidence in the defense and together we’re a pretty good football team. We did some dumb things today that we need to address, but if we can eliminate some of those things, we have a pretty good football team.’’