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Patrick Reusse

Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968.

Reusse: Defense can carry Vikings to Super Bowl, even with Keenum at QB

The NFL meetings were taking place at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix during the last week of March. Mark Wilf was in attendance as a Vikings owner and the team president, and Mark Craig was covering for the Star Tribune.

The next Super Bowl would occur in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018, and Wilf said the goal for the 2017 Vikings was to play in that game.

“That’s what drives us,’’ Wilf told Craig. “We know the history. We’d like to be the first.’’

The Super Bowl history is that in 51 games, no team has played in its home stadium. And reading that quote from Wilf the Younger seven months ago was worth a smile, in the wake of the Vikings’ 3-8 collapse to end the 2016 season and the feeble offense that had been featured in Mike Zimmer’s first three years as the head coach.

Looking back at this piece on startribune.com, there was another article that accompanied it, carrying the headline, “Source: Vikings signing QB Case Keenum as Sam Bradford’s backup.’’

There were 128 readers’ comments attached to the Keenum news, and the first read:

“About what you would expect for a low dollar, number 2, QB option.  Like most teams, the Vikes will keep their fingers crossed that Bradford stays healthy.  If he doesn't, what shapes up to be a mediocre season could go south in a hurry.’’

MORE: The recruitment of Case Keenum: How the partnership materialized 

Another comment read: “Really good signing. Speilman in line for GM of the year.’’

I’m not one to wallow in sarcasm, but I have a hunch that was the vein in which this was offered. And if I were to someday take a shot at the Vikings’ boss of football, I also would try to get the i before the e in Spielman.

As I recall, smiling at the Wilfs’ fantasy of playing a Super Bowl in their stadium was matched by my yawn at the Keenum signing. With T.E. Bridgewater’s status unknown, and Taylor Heinecke’s ability unknown, Speilman had to get somebody, so why not Keenum?

He had started 10 games in 2016, 24 in his career and was 29 years old. And without studying tape, there was a very good chance Keenum would be able to outrun Shaun Hill, the 2016 veteran backup and headed into retirement.

Yet, who but a Wilf and a few blind optimists who make a living kissing up to the billionaires from New Jersey would have guessed that, come late October, there would be momentum on both fronts:

One, the Wilfs being joined in their Super Bowl thoughts by increasing numbers of optimists with eyes wide open, and two, Keenum as an adequate starting quarterback on a contending team.

The Wilfs, the reborn optimists and Keenum are all being carried along by the same element: a swift, mauling, mean-spirited defense.

The Vikings defense is The Trumpeter on Twitter: no prisoners.

Linval Joseph is monstrous in the middle. Everson Griffen is among the best veteran pass rushers on the planet, and Danielle Hunter is among the best less experienced pass rushers.

Xavier Rhodes is among the best few in the league at cornerback, and Harrison Smith is the best safety in the league.

We had an idea that all those things could be true in 2017, if these ornery gents were healthy.

Another outstanding defender from last season was linebacker Eric Kendricks. The unknown was Anthony Barr, the other linebacker. How could he show so such hints of greatness early, and then be so-so in 2016 to the point that he took a couple of public shots from Zimmer?

The Vikings want us to believe it was an injury problem. Whatever the excuse now offered, Barr is back, and then some.

He knocked Aaron Rodgers from the Packers lineup a week ago. He took criticism for an excessive hit on Rodgers, and clearly took that personally against Baltimore on Sunday.

This Anthony Barr gives the Vikings six stars on defense, the others being Joseph, Griffen, Hunter, Rhodes and Smith. Kendricks is close enough to make it seven, and there are another half-dozen defenders who are “bona fide,’’ to quote the Coen Brothers from a great movie script.

Yeah, but the Vikings need Bradford or Bridgewater back to make it through the NFC and play on the home field in this winter’s Super Bowl?

Not really.

Barring injury, and with Barr now fully involved, this defense is as good as was Denver’s when it throttled Carolina 24-10 two years ago. And with that version of an immobile, weak-armed Peyton Manning, the Broncos got there with quarterback play no better than what the Vikings are getting from Keenum.

Change that. Considering Brock Osweiler played half the season, carrying Keenum as the quarterback might not require as much heavy lifting for this Vikings defense as was done by the Broncos star defenders in 2015.

Hey, Von Miller is one of a kind, but the Vikings have six or seven of the great kind on this defense. In a mediocre NFC, that makes anything possible, even as Case Keenum continues at quarterback.

He’s not bad, and that’s good enough.

Rubio burns inside, and it came to fore in Friday's fourth quarter

Ricky Rubio’s homecoming had started with him being introduced as the first member of the Utah Jazz lineup on Friday night. The sellout crowd was not yet settled in Target Center, yet those paying attention gave Rubio a loud ovation.

Asked later about the greeting, Rubio said: “I have a lot of friends here. I haven’t seen them for a while, so it was good.’’

This seemed to put the Minnesota fans in the “friend’’ category, and that would not be a stretch. The difficulty in making jump shots was a frustration for Wolves hard-cores, yet it never changed an overall fondness for Rubio -- as an athlete who came off as devoid of arrogance in his personality, as a tough competitor, as someone determined to make himself part of a winning team in the NBA.

All of those things Minnesotans were able to love in Ricky, if only that stroke of his led to a jump shot that came quicker and with more arc.

Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell all coached Rubio, with various views as to whether his wonderful floor generalship could make up for his flawed shooting.

There was no such quandary for Tom Thibodeau, who became the president for basketball and the coach before the 2016-17 season. There were Rubio trade rumors almost immediately. There were a few weeks last winter when Rubio was making jump shots as never before in the NBA, but that didn’t change the opinion of many that Thibodeau was going to move Ricky if possible.

The Wolves wound up sending him to Utah this summer for a future first-rounder, then used the money saved to sign Jeff Teague, another veteran point guard, as a free agent.

Friday's game was a bit of a brawl from the start, and the Wolves were almost as much of an offensive mess as they had been in losing the season opener on Wednesday in San Antonio.

They were down 65-58 with three minutes to go in the third quarter, and then closed with a 12-0 run to take a 70-65 lead. At that point, Rubio was 3-for-8 from the field, with seven assists, four fouls and a total of eight points.

Bottom line: His impact had been minimal.

Then came the fourth quarter. The game turned fierce, and Rubio had much to do with that from Utah’s standpoint. At one point, Thibodeau's best defender, Jimmy Butler, went at Rubio defensively, and they wound up in a tangle that resulted in a double technical.

Rubio kept being put at the line, including on a couple of foolish fouls by the Wolves. Rubio made a vital three, and eight of nine free throws. He scored 11 points in the fourth to finish with 19.

If Jamal Crawford had not gone lights out in the fourth, scoring all 17 of his points (including a game-winning three from the far right sideline), Rubio and the Jazz would have come into his old home and left with an upset victory.

Utah coach Quin Snyder was asked about Rubio’s furious play in the fourth and said:

“Ricky is kind of stoic, but it’s burning inside if you know him. I like to see the passion in his game. You saw that tonight and I expect to keep seeing it.’’

Rubio was in civilian clothes in the visitors locker room. When the Butler altercation was mentioned, he said:

“It was the NBA. Everybody is trying to get a win. Whatever it takes to get that win … Everybody is trying to make a point.’’

As for the emotion of playing this soon in a new season against his former team, Rubio said: “Once the game starts, you forget about what the emotions were before. You forget and play to win. We didn’t play that well tonight.’’

Rubio also offered this on Crawford bailing out the Wolves in the fourth quarter: “That’s why he has been in the league all this time, playing on winning teams.’’