The Chicago Bears are 2-4. The Detroit Lions are 3-3, losers of two consecutive games after their defense was fileted for 52 points on Sunday. And the Green Bay Packers — still tied with the Vikings atop the NFC North at 4-2 after a 23-10 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday — are likely in more trouble than anyone.
The Packers lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken right collarbone in the first quarter, when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr knocked him to the ground after Rodgers threw his fourth pass of the day. They’d been able to weather injuries along their offensive line, and the loss of three starters in their defensive backfield, because they had Rodgers. With their MVP quarterback out, their offense looked listless and aimless.
Injuries, to be sure, have scorched the Vikings’ best-laid plans, too. They started Case Keenum for the fourth time this season on Sunday, as Sam Bradford’s left knee troubles kept him out again. Their quarterback situation — so often a source of palace intrigue — is about to be juicy again, with Teddy Bridgewater likely to be cleared for practice this week and Bradford’s status uncertain. The Vikings already lost rookie running back Dalvin Cook for the season, and they played Sunday without three more starters: wide receiver Stefon Diggs, guard Nick Easton and safety Andrew Sendejo.
But in a division that might turn into a war of attrition, the Vikings are in prime position to strike because of how they’ve managed their injuries.
Though he had a costly fumble deep in Packers territory, Jerick McKinnon was otherwise impressive in relief of Cook, carrying 16 times for 69 yards, catching another five passes for 30 yards and scoring touchdowns as both a runner and receiver. Keenum threw the Vikings’ first interception of the season, and could have been intercepted again on two ill-advised throws to Adam Thielen. But he effectively used his mobility and found holes in a decimated Packers secondary, throwing for 239 yards and a score.
“The teams that are the deeper teams are usually making those playoff runs,” Thielen said. “Teams that can have multiple guys step up and have multiple weapons, those are usually the teams that are playing well. Obviously, it’s tough when you’re thinking about the big picture, and you’re thinking about all the playmakers that we’ve lost. But if you can just handle your job and keep getting better, good things will happen.”
Rodgers’ early departure prevented the Packers from exploiting Sendejo’s injury, and as the Vikings’ stout run defense kept rookie Aaron Jones from reprising his breakout performance a week ago, coach Mike Zimmer was able to dial up blitzes that had backup QB Brett Hundley out of sorts for most of the afternoon.
Barr (who left with a concussion) drilled the UCLA product on one pressure, and safety Harrison Smith finished with 1½ sacks and one of the Vikings’ three interceptions.
“It’s a relief, you know, a guy like [Rodgers] is no longer in there,” safety Anthony Harris said. “We kind of keep the same mentality — stop the run, compete, defend the pass and try to get them into third down and off the field once they’re in that situation.”
The Packers managed only 227 yards of total offense, converting only 14 first downs. They had a touchdown overturned when a replay showed Ty Montgomery hadn’t corralled a Hundley pass as he stretched for the end zone, and couldn’t challenge a third-quarter Keenum throw to McKinnon (which appeared to hit the ground) after coach Mike McCarthy had already spent the Packers’ two challenges.
Where the Vikings go from here remains to be seen. They have another home game Sunday — their fourth in five weeks — against the Baltimore Ravens, but will play only three of their final nine at U.S. Bank Stadium. A difficult second-half road schedule includes consecutive road games against Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina.
But with bootlegs for Keenum, screens and draws for McKinnon, deep throws for Thielen and a handful of connections for tight end Kyle Rudolph, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur appeared in full control of his personnel as currently constituted.
Few coordinators in the division can make such a claim at this point, as the Packers prepare to become the third NFC North team to use their second starting quarterback of the season next Sunday.
It’s possible the Vikings will become the first team to three, if Bridgewater winds up back in the mix at some point this year. But if anything’s gotten them to the top of the NFC North thus far, it’s the fact that, no matter how ungainly it has seemed at times, these Vikings have found a way.
“I’ve said it all year long,” Rudolph said. “There’s a ton of guys on this offense that can make plays as long as we keep our quarterback on his feet.”