NASHVILLE – This felt like a preseason finale, with starters from both teams sitting out, the Vikings and Titans both keeping the clock moving to avoid injuries, and the bleachers at LP Field mostly vacant because of rain showers and an NCAA game across town on Vanderbilt’s campus.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise to hear that the Vikings started up their buses to the airport at halftime.
Beyond the important decisions that coach Mike Zimmer has to make at middle linebacker, strong safety and on the back end of his 53-man roster — which will be revealed Saturday — there was not much to evaluate in a game in which a handful of lesser-known Vikings players made extended cameos.
Heck, there was even a Christian Ponder sighting, the first since the preseason opener.
But the Vikings did beat the Titans 19-3 in a sloppy but fast-paced game, completing their first unbeaten preseason since 2001.
“More than the record in the preseason, I feel good about the way that we’ve performed,” Zimmer said. “We’ve taken care of the football. We’ve not made a lot of mistakes. We haven’t been a big penalty team. We seem to be doing the right things.”
This is the seventh time that the Vikings went undefeated in the preseason. In four of the ensuing regular seasons, they had a winning record. In three, they made the playoffs.
And in 1973, they went all the way to the Super Bowl. Of course, a perfect preseason is no guarantee for success. In 2001, the year after their 41-0 loss in the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings won five games.
Before giving way to the second-stringers and roster long shots Thursday, the Vikings in the preseason were mostly sharp offensively, and Zimmer’s defense offered hope that a turnaround will soon come.
But a good idea of who the Vikings will be in 2014 won’t become clear until they play a game that counts in the standings. The first one of those will be in St. Louis on Sept. 7 against the Rams.
“It’s always nice to win, especially when you’re starting a new program,” Zimmer said. “But to me, it’s how are we playing? What kind of football are we playing? And hopefully that will carry us on.”
With Zimmer holding out all of his clear-cut starters Thursday night, including top quarterback Matt Cassel, rookie Teddy Bridgewater — sans gloves — made his first start in the NFL, albeit in a preseason game. He completed four of nine attempts for 17 yards and a touchdown and steered the Vikings to a pair of scores on his first two drives before exiting the game.
“He’s getting better each and every week,” Zimmer said.
Second-year running back Joe Banyard did most of the heavy lifting, rushing for 111 yards on 18 carries.
Banyard’s 20-yard run on the opening drive set up a 3-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater to wide receiver Adam Thielen that gave the Vikings a 7-0 lead. It was the only touchdown of the night.
Ponder, who did not play in the team’s second and third preseason games, replaced Bridgewater with 9:26 left in the first half. For the most part, it was a positive performance. He completed 12 of 15 attempts for 121 yards.
“I’m especially proud of Christian Ponder because I know there have been a lot of fans and a lot of people who have been negative toward him,” Zimmer said. “He went out and performed well tonight.”
Kicker Blair Walsh booted four field goals to put the Vikings up 19-0. Titans kicker Maikon Bonani split the uprights in the middle of the fourth quarter to end the shutout.
As was the case in three of the team’s four preseason games, Zimmer’s defense bent but didn’t break against the Titans, especially in the first half, when the outcome was still in question.
“I don’t think we played particularly well in the running game. There were too many open receivers. And I think we missed too many tackles,” Zimmer said. “Even though we held them out of the end zone, that’s really not the style that I want to see.”
After the game ended — in a brisk 2 hours and 34 minutes — the Vikings boarded a plane back to the Twin Cities. The team must make its final roster cuts by 3 p.m. Saturday, and Zimmer needs to pick starters at a couple of positions.
And for a handful of players, this forgettable preseason finale will be their final game in the NFL.
“It’s really hard here in this situation because every one of these guys have done what we’ve asked them to do,” Zimmer said. “I have a fondness in my heart for all these guys. They’ve listened to me complain and yell at them and every other thing. But I think they’ve got better each week.”