Before the Vikings played the Packers at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 22, 2015, in a nationally televised late-afternoon game that would determine the NFC North leader, coach Mike Zimmer sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Michelle Beisner in which he would reveal a sense of competitive admiration for Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“I hate to say this, but I always felt like I wanted to be as good as Belichick was to him,” Zimmer said. “I’m not a silver-spoon guy; I’m a guy that has to go out and prove it each day, and I always wanted to prove I was the best.”
“Him” in that story was Bill Parcells, the legendary coach under whose unyielding approach both Belichick and Zimmer formed their careers. Before Belichick won five Super Bowls with the Patriots, he claimed his first two titles as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, setting the bar for whoever would come after him.
The Vikings lost 30-13 that Sunday to the Packers, before wresting the NFC North title from them in a Week 17 Sunday night game that signaled the Vikings’ legitimacy on a nationwide level. On Sunday, they have a chance to make perhaps the most profound statement about the mettle of their program since that win at Lambeau Field.
For all the Vikings’ success in 4½ seasons under Zimmer — a 45-29-1 regular-season record, two division titles and a trip to the NFC Championship Game — it’s worth noting that they’ve done perhaps their most significant work at home. They’ve beaten four teams with winning records on the road under Zimmer, defeating the Lions and Falcons in back-to-back weeks last season after beating Atlanta and Green Bay in 2015. Against teams that went on to make the playoffs, the Vikings went 2-8 on the road from 2014-17, and have a pair of road losses against current division leaders this season (the Rams and Bears).
Belichick praised Zimmer this week, calling him one of the best coaches in the NFL and saying the Patriots often watch the Vikings’ defensive tape for ideas about things they can add to their own playbook. But in a league that’s systematically engineered to produce turnover at the top, the Patriots have practically been immune to it.
Zimmer has talked in the past about his view that there are four stages of learning in football: learning to compete, learning to win, learning to handle success and learning to be a champion. If the Vikings are somewhere between the third and fourth stages, the Patriots are the gold standard of the final plateau.
““The thing I respect about their team the most, and I told our team this yesterday: They don’t care what they did last week,” Zimmer said. “They just focus on this week, and they go from there, and that’s how they continue to win. We have to get that mentality where, whatever we did last week — whether we won by 50 or lost by 50 — it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is this week. That’s what they do, and I think they do a great job of it.”
Both Belichick and Zimmer have an attention to detail, as well as a disregard for their own past success, that seems derived from Parcells, and the Vikings’ coach spent much of the offseason warning his team not to rest on its 13-3 season a year ago.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo referenced a study this week he’d conducted that showed the average turnover of a roster to be between 33 and 38 percent every year. DeFilippo and quarterback Kirk Cousins are an embodiment of that change this season, as are the Vikings’ alterations to their defensive backfield in particular.
“We talked about it all the time: We don’t get to start in the NFC Championship,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Every year is a new year because of that statistic — a third of a team every year, on average, is going to be different. If you don’t live in the moment and try to take care of what you can take care of this year, there aren’t many guarantees that we’re going to be able to replicate it next year.”
As Rudolph pointed out, the Patriots are immune to some of the turnover because they have Belichick and Tom Brady -- “As long as those two aren’t part of the 33 percent, the rest of the pieces are just pieces,” he said.
But for an organization that strives in many ways to mimic the Patriots’ culture — from the development around its sprawling headquarters to a stable leadership structure and the subsummation of egos into a businesslike focus — there could be few better markers of progress than by doing what the Patriots have done so often: stare down a fellow contender in a hostile environment, and win.
“I think we play better when we’re underdogs — I hope,” Zimmer said.