LONDON – The Vikings flew more than 4,000 miles home on Sunday night, having done what they were supposed to do at Twickenham Stadium: They sidestepped potential catastrophes, against a team that had lost 26 of its previous 27 games, and won.
That was the minimum requirement for the Vikings, playing five hours ahead of their home time zone in a game that was as much a hassle as it was spectacle, and they can rightly enjoy the reward for meeting it. They head into their bye week with a 6-2 record, a game and a half clear of their nearest pursuer in the NFC North, and are in control of their own destiny before a strenuous second-half schedule.
It will be those final eight games, though, that tell the story about how good the Vikings really are. Sunday’s 33-16 victory over the Browns didn’t add much clarity to that picture.
Trailing 13-12 at halftime, the Vikings exerted themselves with two touchdowns and two field goals in the second half, pulling away as the better team should from a Cleveland club that committed one roughing-the-passer penalty, a pass interference violation and a defensive holding infraction on the TD drive that put the Vikings up by 14.
They allowed only 116 yards after halftime, sacking Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer three times, and let Cleveland have the ball for only 22 minutes, 8 seconds. It was a workmanlike victory, even if it wasn’t going to be anything more than that.
“Good team win [Sunday]. Started out a little slow,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “[It] wasn’t the way we anticipated coming out, but our guys fought and battled and I thought offensively in the second half, our offense had some great drives.”
The Vikings trailed at halftime despite gaining 247 yards, as two drives resulted in field goals and the Browns set up their initial touchdown with a Joe Schobert interception after Carl Nassib tipped a Case Keenum pass. Keenum finished the day 27-for-43 for 288 yards but had trouble connecting on screen passes early as the Browns jumped into his throwing lanes to bat down passes.
Cleveland pulled ahead before halftime after Ricardo Louis beat Xavier Rhodes on a deep ball down the sideline for 37 yards, and Isaiah Crowell gained 38 yards on a screen pass to put the Browns in a first-and-goal situation at the Vikings 6-yard line. Cleveland coach Hue Jackson quickly burned a pair of timeouts before Kizer eventually scored on a 1-yard touchdown keeper, leaving time for the Vikings’ Kai Forbath to kick a 34-yard field goal before halftime, but the Browns led 13-12 at intermission.
“The series right before halftime, we did not play very well,” Zimmer said. “We gave up a big third down on third-and-long and then we let them get in for a touchdown.”
After Danielle Hunter forced a Crowell fumble on the Browns’ first play of the second half, the Vikings pulled away, scoring on three of their next four drives. Keenum found holes in the Browns secondary on throws outside the pocket.
“It’s me seeing where they’re going, [them seeing] where I’m going and just being able to find space, find areas, them being able to beat their man,” Keenum said. “Because it’s tough for those guys to cover when I can escape the pocket and hold on to the ball for a little bit longer. With our guys, it’s just about giving them a chance. We had a couple of … penalties on a few scramble routes, but I think that’s a good weapon for us.”
The Vikings’ six victories are against teams with combined records of 18-27; they’ll play four of five after the bye week on the road, with their lone home game coming against the 5-2 Los Angeles Rams. Throw in the possibility of Teddy Bridgewater becoming the Vikings’ third starting quarterback this season, and it will be much clearer by mid-December how good this team can be.
But the players can rest and recuperate for a week now, knowing they’ve built some margin for themselves in the division. A victory over the Browns in London, no matter how unremarkable it might have been, made the long trip worthwhile.
“There’s so many distractions that you have and it’s so different than us just traveling domestically for a road game,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “So I think our staff and our organization did a great job at limiting the distractions, making it as normal a week as possible for us, and really, that allowed us to just go out and play football like we would in the States.”