The pageantry of opening day. The challenging nostalgia of Lambeau Field. The embarrassment of losing to Buffalo. The glimpse of precocious coaching genius in Los Angeles. The bittersweet faux revenge of a victory in Philly.
After five weeks, the Vikings must feel they’ve played something close to an entire season, such have been the emotional swings of what was predicted to be the most difficult portion of their schedule. Whatever its challenges and problems, the National Football League knows how to make its games feel epic.
As this Vikings team has proved, sometimes the games are too epic. Sometimes the easily overlooked games cause the biggest problems.
That’s why the team’s next two games could be as important and revealing as any two on the regular-season schedule. The next two games will test coach Mike Zimmer’s command of his team, and the roster’s athletic maturity.
If Zimmer can motivate and direct his team like the championship-caliber coach he is supposed to be, the Vikings will beat two rookie quarterbacks and their mediocre teams over the next two Sundays, and enter a showdown with the New Orleans Saints with a record of 4-2-1.
That record would keep them in contention for the division title and leave them an easily attainable five or six victories from the consolation prize of a wild-card playoff berth.
A loss to either Josh Rosen and the Arizona Cardinals or Sam Darnold and the New York Jets would spell trouble, and would represent a second loss in a should-win game, along with the embarrassment of losing to the Bills at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Zimmer should be challenging his players this week, and someone should be challenging Zimmer.
In ambition, background and demeanor, Zimmer is trying to emulate Bill Belichick, another Bill Parcells protégé known for defensive expertise and gruffness.
Zimmer, like Belichick, has a reputation for making life difficult for quality quarterbacks.
This season, Zimmer is 0-1 against rookie quarterbacks, having lost to Josh Allen, perhaps the least polished of the NFL’s rookie starters. It’s Zimmer’s job to confuse and disrupt young quarterbacks. A big game by either Rosen or Darnold would be troubling, even if the Vikings win.
Belichick has never lost to a rookie quarterback at home. Zimmer accomplished that feat just last month.
As passing yards and penalties on quarterback hits have increased this season, the Vikings have been reminded of the importance of a running game, even a mediocre one.
The Vikings are 2-0-1 when holding opponents under 100 rushing yards, and 2-0-1 when rushing for 60 yards or more.
Zimmer will be challenged this season not merely by high expectations but by the imposition of real life. Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano and beloved team historian Fred Zamberletti are gone, and star defensive end Everson Griffen is away from the team while dealing with mental health issues.
Through five games, the Vikings find themselves about where most objective observers would have expected. I believed if they won two of their first five games that they’d be set up for success.
But something has changed in the NFC North — Khalil Mack has transformed the Chicago Bears into true contenders, winnowing the Vikings’ margin for error.
So Zimmer’s task the next two Sundays is manageable and vital:
He needs to prove he can dismantle young quarterbacks the way other championship coaches do. Failure to do so could ruin the Vikings’ season.
Zimmer remains something of a mystery. His tutorial and organizational methodology helped build the Vikings into a contender, but the Vikings’ past seven opponents, dating to the Saints playoff game, have produced 28 points per game.
It’s time for Zimmer to re-establish himself as a defensive guru, before it’s too late.