Halfway through the regular season and going into their bye week, the first-place Vikings are 6-2 and in position to win their second NFC North title in three years. Over their padded shoulders hangs last year’s 3-8 finish after a 5-0 start heading into the bye week, which kept them out of the playoffs.
Are these Vikings better suited to weather the NFL’s second act?
“You never really know,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’ve handled their business pretty good all through training camp, all through the first part of the season. Like all teams, we’ve had some things we had to deal with. I like how they respond to things, but just because I like it doesn’t mean that’s what we’re going to do.”
When separating this year’s team from 2016, start with the running game. Despite rookie Dalvin Cook’s torn ACL four weeks ago, the Vikings and a revamped offensive line produced more than 100 rushing yards in three straight games before Sunday. A balanced attack with quarterback Case Keenum has the Vikings ranked in the NFL’s top half in points scored (22.4, 14th) and third-down conversions (43 percent, seventh).
“We’re moving the ball well offensively. I think that’s been big,” Zimmer said. “It’s too early to look at stats, but offensively we’re 13th in [yardage], where we were 29th or something a year ago. So I think the way that we’ve improved offensively has helped the team.”
Meanwhile, the Vikings defense is playing at a very high level, ranking third in yardage and fourth in points allowed. Both rankings would be the Vikings’ best of this coaching regime, spearheaded by one of the league’s stingiest run blockades. The Vikings are on pace for the franchise’s best run defense since 2008 — when they last led the NFL — allowing just 651 yards through eight games.
But most of these players have seen the start of this movie before. This time, they’d like to stick around for an encore.
“Who knows how good we can be?” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “We’re pressing every week trying to get better. Coach Zim keeps us humble around here. Until the end of the season, and all the things are on the table, we won’t know.”