John Peterson, the Olympic wrestler from Wisconsin, has spoken to the Vikings during Saturday night chapel service before previous games. This weekend, he arranged for Dan Gable, the legendary Iowa wrestler and coach, to address the team.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s father, Bill, is in the Illinois high school wrestling hall of fame. Zimmer wrestled and played football for his father in high school.

“Wrestling is the toughest sport I’ve ever participated in,” Zimmer said Sunday afternoon, standing in a hallway lined with Gophers football photos, deep inside TCF Bank Stadium. “Dan gave us a bunch of quotes yesterday. One of the quotes was, ‘The first period goes to the kid with the best technique. The second period goes to the kid with the best conditioning. The third period is for the kid with the biggest heart.’

“That’s what I was thinking about in this ballgame: Let’s have the biggest heart.”

If the 2014 Vikings were a wrestler, they’d have two cauliflower ears, arms tattooed with bruises, and a pulse that would not embarrass Gable or the Zimmers.

For the second consecutive week, Zimmer’s team won an ugly game late, this time wearing down Washington 29-26, leaving the Vikings at 4-5 heading into their bye.

At a glance, the Vikings are one of many NFL teams with middling records, kept afloat by league-instituted parity, but this is a case where approaching .500 is a victory.

Norv Turner’s offense was supposed to revolve around Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph, Matt Cassel and Cordarrelle Patterson. One is suspended, two are hurt, and one runs routes as if he’s following a defective GPS.

Zimmer’s defense is relying on rookie Anthony Barr, a player who has spent one full previous season at linebacker, to be one of his two best players, along with the reliable Harrison Smith.

There would be nothing wrong with Zimmer admitting that this is a teaching season. Instead, he stood at the podium Sunday and said, “I wish we could have that fourth-and-20 back, but it is what it is.

“We had Dan Gable, who is really an idol of mine, talk to the team last night. He talked about the one match he lost. He had won 181 in a row and lost the championship match and he said he needed to lose that one because he was getting to the point where he wasn’t doing everything successfully.

“Maybe we needed to lose that game in Buffalo.”

If not for that fourth-down play during the game-losing drive in Buffalo three weeks ago, the Vikings, NFL’s version of day care, would be 5-4 and firmly in playoff contention.

As it is, Zimmer’s team is developing a personality, if not a résumé.

“I feel like our team grew up in a lot of different ways today because they could have folded their tents early,” Zimmer said. “We went down 10-0, but we kept fighting and fighting.”

Teddy Bridgewater, the youthful quarterback, made a handful of amateurish throws during the first half, but produced 268 yards, a touchdown pass and no turnovers. He is 3-2 as a starter. In his three victories, he has thrown zero interceptions and led three fourth-quarter comebacks.

Rookie running back Jerick McKinnon produced only 5 yards from scrimmage in the first half, but finished with 54. And a defense that looked confused by Robert Griffin III in the first half battered him as the game wore on.

“We’re 4-5 and we feel like we’ve got a big shot at making the playoffs,” Patterson said.

I asked Zimmer about that. He laughed. “Playoffs? I’m thinking about the bye week.”

Like Washington coaching legend Joe Gibbs, Zimmer has made a habit of sleeping in his office.

“No sleeping in the office this week,” he said. “I’ll take three days off, and head back to Kentucky.”

When he returns, Zimmer will coach a bunch of kids in meaningful games. If the season were a wrestling match, he’d be heading into the third period, feeling pretty good about his team’s pulse.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. Twitter: @SouhanStrib jsouhan@startribune.com