As the Vikings prepared for the Chicago Bears, there was a relaxed confidence around Winter Park this week — the kind that typically follows a team that knows what it wants and how to go get it.
The Vikings can clinch a first-round bye with a win at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the formula they’ll use to pursue their 13th victory of the season is the one they’ve honed on their way to 10 wins in their past 11 games.
In that time, Case Keenum has asserted himself as the team’s quarterback, capable of making downfield throws and using his feet to either extend plays or make them on his own. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have formed a versatile backfield tandem, behind a deeper and nimbler offensive line than the Vikings had last year. The team has leaned on sublime route-runners Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and a reliable red zone target in Kyle Rudolph. Resourceful offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has presided over the concoction, and on their roughest days, the Vikings could lean on the league’s top-ranked defense.
The formula has been blended over an 11-game stretch that dates to the Vikings’ first meeting with the Bears, on Oct. 9 at Soldier Field. That game, which now stands as the turning point of the Vikings’ season, also provides a reminder of how different things could have been.
A week before their Monday night game in Chicago, the Vikings fell to 2-2 with a 14-7 home loss to the Detroit Lions, losing rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL in the process. Keenum lost for the second time in three starts against the Lions, completing 16 of his 30 passes for 219 yards and taking a costly sack that thwarted the Vikings’ comeback bid.
And rather than stick with Keenum in Chicago as they tried to avoid going 0-2 in the division, the Vikings opted to put their trust in Sam Bradford’s aching left knee, in a move that went haywire so quickly that the team took the rare step of making head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman available to the media the next day to explain the decision.
The Vikings were up 3-2 in Chicago when they turned to Keenum just before halftime, and it was only when the offense began to coalesce around the quarterback that Minnesota avoided what could have been a costly loss. Keenum completed 17 of his 21 passes that night for 140 yards and a touchdown, and after Harrison Smith’s late interception of first-time starter Mitch Trubisky, Kai Forbath kicked a 26-yard field goal with 16 seconds left to give the Vikings a 20-17 win. A loss that night would have left the Vikings tied for third place in the division, before a home game against the 4-1 Packers. And it wasn’t lost on players or coaches this week how quickly things could have gone in a different direction had the Vikings lost the game.
“Yeah, I’d like to say no, but I think it’s reality that it [can],” Thielen said. “You lose a game, and it’s almost like you definitely lose momentum. When you can stack wins on top of each other, you just keep building confidence. Sometimes you feel like your offense is clicking extremely well, even though maybe it’s not. That just helps you moving forward because confidence is a huge thing in this league, and it can go a long way.”
Even in a locker room full of alpha males, the collective psyche of an NFL team can be a fragile thing.
“They all have confidence [as individuals], but I think as a team, they think, ‘Well, we’re not very good,’ or, ‘We’re really good.’ That has a lot to do with it,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
“Most teams don’t know if they’re good or bad at the beginning of the year. You come out, you win your first three games and you think you’re pretty good. You lose your first three games, you think you’re bad. It’s more about the team confidence than the individuals.”
Now, the Vikings are a win away from just the second 13-victory season in franchise history. Keenum — the quarterback who clearly hadn’t established much equity with the Vikings by the time of the first Chicago game — figures to wind up on MVP ballots. He’s played himself into the increasingly complex conversation about the Vikings’ future at quarterback, as Teddy Bridgewater bides his time as Keenum’s backup and Bradford plans to return to practice only next week.
An offense that leaned heavily on Cook during the first four weeks of the season has marched on without him, posting at least 100 rushing yards in all but one game since his injury and establishing the NFL’s eighth-best running game.
If the Vikings win Sunday, putting themselves two games from becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, there will be narratives proffered and platitudes breathed about the team’s grand plan, what it saw in free agents Keenum and Murray that no one else did.
NFL seasons, in reality, are rarely so simple. The Vikings are probably where they are not so much because of a grand plan but because of a willingness to learn from previous years and give themselves options if injuries detour their preferred route.
The first Bears game — the moment when the Vikings offense found itself and the team’s run really started — is also a reminder of how quickly the season could have taken a darker turn. The second one could be a coronation.
And if this team goes on to play in, or even win, a Super Bowl in its home stadium, history might well remember a six-day stretch in October — between the victory at Soldier Field and the game where the Vikings felled Aaron Rodgers — as the fulcrum of the whole season.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org