By turning Aaron Rodgers’ upper body into an unwilling accordion, Anthony Barr might have altered the NFC North the way a bulldozer alters a condemned house.
As of midafternoon Sunday, the convalescing Teddy Bridgewater had a better chance than Rodgers of playing in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium, and for the first time in 25 years, the Vikings found themselves stronger at quarterback than the Green Bay Packers, even amid the Vikings’ typically dramatic uncertainty at the position.
If the Vikings ride to the NFC North Division title behind Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater or Kyle Sloter — or behind an out-of-work activist or an employed television commentator — Barr will become their stealth MVP, to be rewarded by teammates with surreptitious fist bumps and Bitcoin.
When he broke Rodgers’ collarbone, Barr made Sunday’s 23-10 victory a certainty and a division championship a more likely possibility.
The previous weekend, Rodgers led the Packers to the kind of improbable, last-second victory remindful of his greatness while the Vikings started Bradford, watched him limp like he was wearing a too-loose prosthetic, and won at Chicago behind Keenum.
This Sunday, Bradford couldn’t play, Rodgers suffered what the Packers termed a possible season-ending injury, Keenum won again and Bridgewater prepared for a week in which he might be cleared to return to practice, which would give the Vikings 21 days to decide whether to activate him.
It is typical of the Vikings’ history at the position that suddenly Bridgewater is deemed to have healthier knees than Bradford, a little more than a year after Bridgewater suffered an injury that could have cost him his life or his leg.
It is atypical of this rivalry that the Vikings have three quarterbacks on their roster that are better than the Packers’ default starter, Brett Hundley, who succeeded Sunday in proving that Rodgers is the NFL’s most indispensable player.
The Packers’ woes begin in importance but did not end in significance with Rodgers. Green Bay has a half-dozen starters injured, while Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said that only running back Dalvin Cook, on his roster, has been ruled out for the season.
Bridgewater’s return seemed the stuff of silly dreams and bad scriptwriting before Bradford failed to finish a half last Monday in Chicago, but those who have watched Bridgewater lately rave about his recovery. “He looks great,” receiver Adam Thielen said.
If Bridgewater is cleared to practice and looks like the team’s best quarterback, the Vikings will face a typically torturous decision.
Do they plod along with Keenum? Do they test Bradford’s knee again? Do they prepare Bridgewater to take back what 14 months ago was his job, knowing that to play him is to risk exposing him to free agency in March?
It’s instructive to remember what Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman did when Bridgewater injured his knee. Spielman went after the best quarterback he could find, regardless of cost.
If Bridgewater is cleared to play and Bradford doesn’t recover, Bridgewater might become the team’s best option, regardless of cost.
The division title now seems as inviting as a neon vacancy sign, and the league itself features no great teams, promising a “Game of Thrones” fight for the right to spout clichés at media day on the U.S. Bank Stadium turf.
The Vikings are tied with the Packers at the top of the division at 4-2. The Lions allowed 52 points on Sunday and are 3-3 despite a healthy franchise quarterback. The Bears are 2-4 and starting a rookie QB.
The Vikings will play the mediocre Ravens at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, then will face the inept Browns in London. The Vikings should be 6-2 entering their bye week, and with atypical luck they’ll be choosing between a winning backup and two mended franchise quarterbacks for the second half of the schedule.
The path to the division title is clear, at least until an opponent lands on your chosen quarterback, and you hear a snap like an oven-dried wishbone.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org