Not every 5-2 record is equal.
A year ago, two losses in a row dropped the Vikings to 5-2 after they were the NFL’s last unbeaten team. That’s where the slide started, ending with the team out of playoff contention.
Now the Vikings are in the same spot entering their eighth game: a two-loss team atop the NFC North.
But the 2017 Vikings, winners of the last three games, this time carry an air of optimism.
“I’d say so,” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “We’ve got a good thing going right now, and we’re just trying to feed off the momentum.”
The Vikings are better now at dictating their own style of play. For the offense, that means running the ball, controlling the clock and grinding out games. And the NFL’s fifth-ranked scoring defense (17 points per game allowed) continues to keep the water level down for the starting quarterback, who for most of the season has been Case Keenum.
But while they improved to 5-2 against the Ravens — a feeling a lot different than falling to 5-2 in 2016 — the Vikings have enough recent memories from last year’s sobering end to stay grounded heading into Sunday morning’s game against the winless Cleveland Browns on a London trip ripe for distraction.
“We unfortunately know when you’re halfway through the season, or almost halfway through the season, it doesn’t mean anything,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’ve been there before.”
As far as lessons learned, receiver Adam Thielen said the Vikings “can’t take anything for granted.”
“You have to come to work every week,” Thielen said. “Doesn’t matter who you’re playing, the record of the team you’re playing. You’ve got to play well on Sundays.”
And you’ve got to stay healthy.
Left guard Nick Easton is expected to return. Receiver Stefon Diggs, who has missed the past two games, could also be back. Left tackle Riley Reiff’s knee injury is not serious, according to Zimmer. And then there is Teddy Bridgewater, who along with Sam Bradford will travel with the team to London.
Neither is expected to play and the Vikings have two more weeks to evaluate Bridgewater in practice before deciding whether activate him from the physically-unable-to-perform list. The very idea that Bridgewater is nearing a return makes 5-2 look even better.
Most encouraging for the Vikings, though, has been the difference between the offensive lines, which started the first five weeks together. Running back Latavius Murray’s 29-yard touchdown run on Sunday against the Ravens exemplified how strong left tackle play can make a difference.
Before exiting with an injured knee, Reiff doubled Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams and looked for more. Reiff then walled off a Ravens linebacker so Murray could sprint through a big hole for his touchdown run. Tight end Kyle Rudolph also threw a key block on Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
“Our guys can get to the second level, because we’re athletic and I think that’s been the biggest thing,” Zimmer said. “We can get from the down linemen to the second-level linebacker and be able to get a body on them, which has allowed us to get some better runs.”
Running the ball was historically painful for the Vikings last season, which contributed to the offense’s inability to close games. Down they fell to an 8-8 finish without a single 100-yard rusher in any game last season.
This year, the Vikings offense has produced two different 100-yard runners in seven games, and nearly a third. Dalvin Cook ran for 127 yards in his NFL debut. Murray finished with 113 rushing yards on Sunday. McKinnon fell just short with 95 rushing yards in Chicago.
So Sunday’s 169-yard team rushing performance is all the more important when considering Cook is on injured reserve because of a torn ACL, and their starting quarterback, Bradford, has played less than a game-and-a-half. The Vikings’ season-high rushing day against the Ravens was nearly 50 yards more than in any game last season.
“It was frustrating, but at the same time we had a lot of guys injured [in 2016],” McKinnon said. “We were rotating a lot of guys. I just think last year it was kind of hard to get on that same page, this year we’ve done a good job of picking up on that.”