The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
The vibe was understandably different in the Vikings locker room after yesterday’s 30-24 victory against the Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.
In Philly they fumed. In Chicago they undressed in disbelief. After the loss to Detroit, they were short on words. In D.C., a sense of resignation.
Yesterday, for the first time in six weeks, the Vikings had something to smile about on a Sunday evening. The wide receivers playfully compared target totals. Cordarrelle Patterson laughed at a question about his Cordarrelle Patterson-inspired socks. Brian Robison bragged about Linval Joseph sacking a sound technician. Some players’ children, one sporting a Teddy Bridgewater jersey, wandered around the locker room.
It was a wild but imperfect win over Arizona. The offense scored two touchdowns but mustered only 217 yards. The defense had no answers for do-it-all Cardinals back David Johnson. The coverage units on special teams allowed a couple of long returns and had a PAT blocked.
But none of that matters this morning. The win, their first since Oct. 9, lifted Linval-sized weights off the shoulders of each player and coach.
“It was weighing on everyone. I think you could feel it just at practice, in the locker room,” said quarterback Sam Bradford, who threw for 169 yards with one TD. “So the joy of winning is a great feeling. That feeling we had in the locker room today, I think it solved a lot of problems.”
But this is still a talented team with a good coach in a wide-open division, a team that desperately needed a couple of bounces to go their way.
The first one came when Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer threw a pass right to Xavier Rhodes, who returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. The Cardinals also handed them three points with three personal fouls on one drive. And a botched fair catch led to a 72-yard Jeff Locke punt.
“We caught a couple bad breaks, and now we just have to keep the ball rolling,” said wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who had a quiet afternoon.
If the Vikings repeat as NFC North champions and go on a deep playoff run, this was probably the game we will point to as the turning point.
“There’s a lot of negativity when you lose four games [in a row],” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s actually a credit to our football team that we didn’t let it seep into us because it can go south really fast.”
Geographically speaking, the Vikings will go south really fast. They must travel to Detroit on a short week to play on Thanksgiving Day. Pole position in the NFC North will be at stake. And this win gave them a much-needed confidence boost heading into a rematch with the Lions.
“That was a good team we beat and we’ve got a little bit of momentum,” left guard Alex Boone said. “We’ve got a nice little stretch coming up here and we’re going to find out what kind of team we really are.”
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Cornerback Terence Newman played only 22 of the 74 defensive snaps yesterday. With slot specialist Captain Munnerlyn back in the lineup and playing 63 snaps, it was Trae Waynes who got the start in the base defense. Waynes ended up playing 59 snaps, second among the corners to only Rhodes, who played 67. Newman spelled those guys in spurts.
2. Jerick McKinnon’s workload continued to increase now that he is a few weeks removed from the ankle injury that sidelined him for one game. McKinnon played 31 of the 58 offensive snaps yesterday and got 16 of the 23 running back carries. Matt Asiata played 21 and scored a touchdown. Ronnie Hillman is back to being a bit player with six snaps.
3. For the second straight week, it was Thielen, not Diggs, who led the wide receivers in playing time. Thielen played 44 snaps, one more than Diggs. Patterson played 35, Charles Johnson played 13 and top pick Laquon Treadwell got six. Jarius Wright was inactive.
4. Danielle Hunter, who recorded a pair of sacks, saw his workload increase with the Cardinals in catch-up mode. He played 52 snaps, one fewer than veteran Brian Robison, who also had a strong game. Everson Griffen played 63 snaps. Tom Johnson, also getting plenty of work in pass-rushing situations, led the defensive tackles with 49 snaps.
5. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was knocked out of the loss to the Redskins with a hip injury, played 69 snaps against the Cardinals, behind only Anthony Barr, who played every down. Veteran Chad Greenway played 15 snaps and Emmanuel Lamur got a one-snap cameo.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “I just seen the fans smiling right there and I jumped. I kind of fell and I think I knocked one of their beers over. So I’m going to have to owe that person a beer. So if he finds me, just let him know that I got two beers for him next time I see him.” — Patterson on his post-TD Bank vault
2. “It looked like an obvious holding penalty. [John Brown] is trying to run an out route and it looked like he could not get out of the grasp of the defender. I am sure we will turn that into the league and I am sure they will come back and say it was holding.” — Palmer, who felt cornerback Captain Munnerlyn held Brown on Rhodes’ interception
3. “I knew that I had both feet in. I knew that there was no way that I stepped out.” — Thielen on his first-quarter touchdown, a back-shoulder catch that was so sweet the officials blew the call
4. “I try not to listen to the crowd noise, but I could hear it on that one.” — new kicker Kai Forbath after the crowd went wild for his first extra point
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Negotiations between Rhodes and the Vikings will be interesting this offseason. Rhodes, who picked off a pair of passes against the Cardinals and now has a career-high four this season, is under team control through 2017. But the Vikings typically give deserving players their second contract a year before they hit the open market. He will no doubt be a priority after this offseason. Finding a price that makes both sides happy could be tricky. Rhodes, who was drafted to play in a Cover Two scheme and has developed into a sticky cornerback in man coverage, again flashed top-flight cover skills yesterday and is a willing and capable tackler, too. But inconsistency has kept him from getting in the top-corner conversation, making his value tough to gauge. If Rhodes keeps playing like he did against Palmer and the Cardinals, the Vikings will have no choice but to pony up big bucks.
2. The Vikings are actually finding a way to make the Wildcat formation work for them. I was intrigued but mostly skeptical in August when we saw the Vikings installing plays in the Wildcat formation, which puts Bradford out wide and has a running back, usually McKinnon, take a direct snap. Offensive line coach Tony Sparano was the head coach in Miami in 2008 when the Dolphins stunned the Patriots by breaking out a package of Wildcat runs. In recent years, NFL teams haven’t had much success with those plays because they were no longer unpredictable. The Wildcat has been an asset, though, for the Vikings this season, providing rare sparks in the running game and producing a key Cardinals pass interference penalty with a clever wrinkle that had McKinnon hand off to Patterson, who flipped it to Bradford, who caught the Cardinals sleeping.
3. Uncharacteristic missed tackles by Harrison Smith continue to cost the Vikings. Smith is one of the NFL’s top safeties and arguably the team’s most fun player to watch, whether he is blitzing, covering man-to-man or lurking in a deep zone. He has also been one of the team’s best tacklers over the course of his five years in Minnesota. But his baffling lapses in tackling over the past month have led to some big plays for opponents. He had a shot at Bears running back Jordan Howard in the hole on Howard’s 69-yard run a few weeks ago and flat out whiffed on Golden Tate’s walk-off winter in the loss to the Lions. Yesterday, on the 29-yard touchdown catch by Cardinals tight end Jermaine Gresham, Smith should have tackled him inside the 10-yard line but couldn’t get Gresham down. The star safety needs to get back to flattening anyone who dares to touch the football.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Your thoughts on about having to burn two of your three challenges after the officials twice erred on calls that were actually touchdowns?
2. OK, now are you concerned about the team’s run defense?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. After losing 11 of 12 Turkey Day games from 2001 to 2012, the Lions have gotten back to capitalizing on the obvious scheduling advantage of being the home team on a short week. They have won three straight on Thanksgiving, outscoring their opponents 119-41 at Ford Field (one of the NFL’s most aesthetically underrated stadiums). The Vikings, playing their first Thanksgiving game in Detroit since 1995, must buck that trend to avoid falling a game and a half behind the Lions in the standings.