Bud Grant oversaw the greatest stretch of defensive teams in NFL history from 1969 to '71, when his Vikings squads gave up 9.5 points per game in 1969, 10.2 in '70 and 9.9 in '71.

That 1969 total still stands as the second-best mark all-time. 1971 is tied for fourth, and 1970 ranks seventh.

Grant talked about what he sees from Mike Zimmer's defensive game plan these days, as the 2017 Vikings defense is ranked fourth in the NFL at 16.9 points per game and third in yards per game at 282.1.

"He understands defense, but he also understands one of the most important things in coaching is you have to understand the personalities and put them in the right spots," Grant said. "He understands who can play and puts them in position to be successful. He is a great defensive coach. As long as you go along and only allow a team one or two or even three touchdowns a game, you have a chance to win."

The fact that the Vikings, who sit at 6-2 during their bye week, are in first place in the NFC North has impressed Grant.

"We've got our share of injuries," he said. "If we can stay away from the injury bug and let this team develop it can go a long way. I don't think there's any question about that. But we're all even and all it takes is a bounce here, a tip there, and you can go from top to bottom in two weeks.

"This team is good enough. With the bye week, everyone can get healthier and make a run here at the end. There is no telling how far we can go. We are in the mix."

Parity a key

As the standings are now, 23 of the NFL's 32 teams are within three losses of each other, with the Eagles as the lone team with just one loss.

Grant said the NFL has always wanted this kind of parity.

"The National Football League has done exactly what they've been trying to do," the Hall of Fame coach said. "Everyone is equal with the free agency, the draft, everybody is 5-2, 2-5, they're all in the mix."

After this week's bye, the Vikings appear to be entering a difficult stretch of games. Grant talked about the play of quarterback Case Keenum, who is ranked as the No. 6 quarterback in the league according to ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating metric but might be in for a position battle if Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford can come back from injury.

"I've always said the longer you can play, the better you get," Grant said. "He has played and put in his time and got the experience, and you can see that."

A five-win bowl?

While coach P.J. Fleck said that he has no interest in discussing the Gophers' bowl chances as they get ready to play Michigan this weekend, it is worth nothing that last season North Texas and Mississippi State made a bowl game with only five victories, and in 2015 the Gophers, Nebraska and San Jose State did the same.

The number of bowl spots to fill — 78 this year — has made this a more common occurrence, and there's a chance that situation could come up again if the Gophers can find another win in their final four games. When the NCAA runs out of six-win teams, five-win teams are selected based on their Academic Progress Report score.

"We're going to focus on Michigan," Fleck said. "That is all I'm focused on. That is a long ways down the road, we can't control that right now. All we can control is getting better this week and continuing to get better at all of our skills, all of our details, all of our fundamentals. We have to execute better, and so that is all I'm focused on is Michigan right now."

Fleck acknowledged the benefit a bowl game brings to a team, especially one as young as the Gophers, but he also said they are preparing in case they don't have that opportunity.

"It's always good to go to a bowl game because you get a ton of extra practices," Fleck said. "What we're doing is, just in case, we're practicing on Sunday nights with a lot of our young players and developing them that way."

When it comes to the Wolverines, it's surprising to see an unranked Michigan team as a 15½-point favorite considering the Wolverines will be giving redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters his first college start. The Gophers' four losses have been by an average of 7.8 points per game.

But the Gophers have their own quarterback situation, as Demry Croft has completed 14 of 43 passes for 186 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions over the past two games. On top of that, the future got a little more cloudy this week with Brennan Armstrong removing his verbal commitment for next year.

"We've got to continue to find out who is going to be the future of our program," Fleck said. "The one thing is, I think Demry played better last week than he did the week before. Conor [Rhoda] is still in the mix. Nobody has taken the job and said, 'This is my job and no one is going to take it from me.' Again, we just have to continue to evolve, and whoever gives us the best chance that week is who we're going to play."


• Vikings safety Anthony Harris made his second start of the season and the seventh of his three-year NFL career in place of suspended Andrew Sendejo last week against Cleveland in London. Harris made a crucial fumble recovery at the start of the second half and finished with a season-high three tackles. Fellow safety Harrison Smith praised Harris' work, saying: "He played awesome. Whenever he comes in and plays, he plays awesome. Tackles well, executes his assignments."

• In Dalvin Cook's three full games, the Vikings averaged 115 rushing yards. They rushed for just 87 yards in Week 4, when Cook suffered his knee injury against Detroit. But since then, the Vikings have averaged 132 rushing yards per game, as Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have really picked up the slack. "Obviously we're in a good place, but I think we still have a lot to work on," Murray said.

• Entering Wednesday, Ricky Rubio had averaged 15.7 points, 7.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals in seven games with Utah, which was 4-3 going into its game against Portland. Through seven games with the 4-3 Timberwolves, Jeff Teague averaged 14.3 points, 7.6 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game.

• The Gophers have two pitchers in the Arizona Fall League, which attracts the top prospects in baseball. Lefthander D.J. Snelten, of the San Francisco Giants organization and pitching for Scottsdale, has given up no earned runs and struck out seven over eight innings. Ben Meyer, with the Miami Marlins and pitching for the Salt River, is 0-2 but has a 3.00 ERA and 11 strikeouts in nine innings.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. shartman@startribune.com