The lowest point in this Vikings season-to-date probably came in Week 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium against Detroit.
What was still assumed to be a short-term injury to Sam Bradford kept him out for a third consecutive game. Case Keenum, with one bad start (Pittsburgh) and one great one (Tampa Bay) started against the Lions. He looked pretty ordinary as the Vikings moved the ball but constantly shot themselves in the foot.
But the Vikings led 7-3 at halftime thanks to another big game from rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Shortly after halftime, though, things went from bad to terrible. Cook moved awkwardly on a carry, fumbling after a 10-yard gain. The fumble led to a go-ahead touchdown in a 14-7 Detroit victory. The aftermath was even worse, as Cook tore his ACL on the play and was lost for the season.
The Vikings were 2-2 at that point with their season very much hanging in the balance. They were already down a quarterback. Now they were missing another dynamic offensive threat. Even with a stout defense, could they survive?
What has happened since, of course, has been pretty amazing. Bradford came back the next week at Chicago, but he looked terrible and was reinjured by halftime. Keenum rescued the Vikings with a win in that game, and Minnesota hasn’t lost since.
Most of the narrative during this eight-game winning streak — rightfully so — has been focused on the play of Keenum, his wide receivers and the defense.
But let’s also pause for a moment to praise the running game, which has continued to churn out yards even without the standout rookie Cook carrying the ball.
It’s been a group effort between the combined forces of Pat Shurmur’s play calling, good work by a vastly improved offensive line and the complementary styles of running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
The output is the easiest thing to quantify, so let’s take a quick look at Murray and McKinnon during this eight-game winning streak since Cook was injured — a tidy amount of games adding up to exactly one half of the season.
Murray in those eight games has rushed for 534 yards and five touchdowns, a half-season pace that would put him at more than 1,000 for a full year. He’s been particularly good since the bye, with at least 68 yards in each of the last four games and four of his five touchdowns coming in that span.
In Sunday’s win over Atlanta, Murray had 52 of his 76 yards after initial contact (per Pro Football Focus), and after working through offseason ankle surgery Murray finally looks spry and healthy.
McKinnon has 388 yards rushing and another 249 yards (on 33 catches) receiving in the last eight games. That span includes three rushing touchdowns and two receiving scores — one of the latter of which came Sunday.
The Vikings averaged 108 yards rushing in their first four games with Cook, but they’ve boosted that to 130 per game since his injury during this eight-game streak.
Being able to continue to run the ball undoubtedly has helped Keenum and shouldn’t be overlooked as a significant factor in this winning streak.