Should the Vikings’ season go according to plan, there will be far more raucous celebrations — to mark two more significant achievements — than the muted ceremony in the home locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
The Vikings are trying to become the first team to play (and win) a Super Bowl in their home stadium, and the coming weeks could give them chances to rewrite six decades of history fraught with disappointment, all in front of their own fans.
If what they gave their fans on Sunday, though, functions as merely an appetizer for what could be coming, it still was one for the 66,833 in attendance to savor.
In a victory that was as important as it was euphoric, the Vikings beat the Cincinnati Bengals 34-7, drubbing a dilapidated and disinterested Bengals team to improve to 11-3. Case Keenum completed 20 of his 23 passes and threw a pair of touchdowns before giving way to Teddy Bridgewater, who played for the first time since returning from the left knee injury he suffered on Aug. 30, 2016.
The Vikings’ most dominant win of the season saw Mike Zimmer’s current defense turn in a commanding performance against his former employer. The Vikings prevented the Bengals from making a first down through the first quarter, sacked Andy Dalton three times and scored their first defensive touchdown of the season when Eric Kendricks picked off a pass Dalton threw right at him and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
Cincinnati gained just 161 yards for the day. Dalton threw two picks — former Bengals cornerback Terence Newman posted the second one — and the Bengals went just 1-for-13 on third downs.
“It’s a good step,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “It’s a step in the right direction. It’s a something that we talked about before the season even started. It was kind of the first box that we wanted to check. Win the division, and then now, moving forward, we have to win some more games to get that first-round bye.”
The NFC North title, the Vikings’ second in three years, means they’ll open the postseason at home. They will head to Green Bay on Saturday to face a Packers team that might not have much to play for after losing at Carolina in Aaron Rodgers’ return, and they’ll finish the regular season at home against Chicago on Dec. 31.
The Vikings had a 17-0 lead by the end of the first quarter on Sunday, thanks to a nine-play, 75-yard drive to open the game, which was followed by Kendricks’ interception return and a field-goal drive set up by the Bengals’ decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 from their own 38.
Minnesota’s ground game posted 124 yards against a Bengals defense that was using safety Josh Shaw at linebacker by the end of the game, and Keenum found Jerick McKinnon on seven passes that totaled 114 yards, making the running back the Vikings’ leading receiver for the day.
“I try to take a visual picture before I catch the ball and know what’s in front of me,” McKinnon said. “Case did a good job of finding me today. They didn’t cover me, and left me open and I was able to make some big plays for the offense.”
After the Vikings built a 34-0 lead, it appeared they might be in line for their first shutout since Dec. 5, 1993. That’s when they turned things over to their backup quarterback, inviting what might have been the loudest roar of the season at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Bridgewater made a cross sign, exchanged handshakes with several teammates and stepped into a game for the first time since Aug. 28, 2016, to roars so loud the quarterback had to cup his hands over his ears to hear the play call in his helmet. As the crowd reached full volume, Keenum watched on the sideline with a wide smile, exhorting fans to get even louder.
The quarterback’s first pass took a pinch of exuberance out of the moment. After two handoffs, he danced in the pocket on third down and threw a pass that went off McKinnon’s hands. Safety Shaun Williams intercepted the pass and returned it to the Vikings’ 23, marking the first time the Bengals had advanced past the Vikings’ 43 all day, and Giovani Bernard’s 2-yard TD run put Cincinnati on the board.
Bridgewater’s second pass of the day was dropped by Michael Floyd, and the quarterback finished with a passer rating of 0.0. His interception was one of the Vikings’ few blemishes of the day, along with three penalties on the offensive line and two more holding calls on David Morgan and Jarius Wright.
The quarterback’s return, though, put a capstone on a day that Vikings fans aren’t likely to forget any time soon.
“It was amazing hearing the crowd chanting and things like that,” Bridgewater said. “But the biggest takeaway from today is that we’re in the tournament. We set goals back in the spring, and we’re hitting all of our goals right now.”