The Vikings had started 5-0 seven times before this season.

Two of those 5-0 teams reached the Super Bowl, in 1973 and 1974, and another was the 1975 Vikings squad, which might have been the best team in franchise history, that fell in the divisional round of the playoffs to Dallas on the controversial Drew Pearson Hail Mary. The Vikings' 1998, 2000 and 2009 squads all started 5-0 and reached the NFC Championship Game before suffering losses.

Only the 2003 squad didn't reach great heights. They started 6-0 that year under Mike Tice but finished with a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs.

So it's easy to see why outlets like ESPN, USA Today and even the sports books in Las Vegas are starting to think that the Vikings have a real shot at being Super Bowl contenders.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who is as critical about his own team as anyone, was asked what he thinks of his squad after five games.

"I think this team has a chance to be pretty special," he said. "They understand the things you have to do to win football games, but more importantly they know how to practice, they know how to prepare, they know how to study. We're doing a lot of good things. We're not turning the ball over offensively, and we've been getting some turnovers defensively. Those things always help."

Still while the Vikings' plus-56 point differential is the highest in the NFL, and they are the lone undefeated team remaining this season, Zimmer isn't all positive. When he was asked if he's happy with the offensive line play, he didn't hide that while he's pleased with how his players are fighting, it's a spot that worries him.

"I'm never too happy with anything, but they go in there and battle the best they can," he said. "We're beat up at that spot and we're going to have to continue to get better and continue to improve. We don't have a lot of time to do it. We have 11 ballgames left and we have to get better."

Finding fixes

If there's one part of the Vikings season that has been most impressive, it's the way the coaches and front office have scrambled to keep the offense afloat. Considering that the team has lost Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil and Andre Smith to injured reserve — all key starters — the fact that they have won any games at all is amazing.

Zimmer broke down some of the key offensive players so far this season, starting with quarterback Sam Bradford, the early favorite for league MVP.

"To do the things he has done and come in here in a short amount of time and perform the way he has, he has been a great addition to our football team," Zimmer said. "He takes good care of the ball, he gets the ball in the right places. Obviously he has a tremendous arm and he throws it with nice touch, so we're awful glad we got him."

Along with Bradford, the play of a number of receivers has been encouraging for the coaching staff. Zimmer praised Adam Thielen's amazing contributions but also talked about how Cordarrelle Patterson is finally getting used offensively.

"He's doing well. He continues to do a little bit more each week and we continue to get him more in the game plan each week," Zimmer said. "I think that's a good thing. He has earned opportunities to play and we're trying to use him."

Running game has to move

One big concern for the Vikings has to be the fact that their average of 70.6 rushing yards per game is the lowest in the NFL. There can't be many Super Bowl contenders that have finished dead last in rushing yards.

Zimmer said he was encouraged that the team rushed for 200 yards over the past two games, which is closer to the league average.

"We have to do a lot of things more, but the most important thing is that we figured out ways to move the football," he said. "Some days are going to be easier running and some are going to be easier throwing. There's a lot of work to do. We have a lot of new guys in there offensively, we've been getting guys hurt, so we just have to keep going."

Zimmer said Matt Asiata is looking better. "He is doing a good job," he said. "He's a tough guy, does a lot of roles on the team like a lot of our guys do. We'll keep getting him in the mix and getting guys going."

When it comes to starting running back Jerick McKinnon, Zimmer still sees some things that need to be improved.

"We have to get him to quit dancing a little bit at the line of scrimmage and try and hit the hole," Zimmer said. "But he's doing a lot of good things. He's catching the ball well, he's good in protection, and we'll keep going with those guys."

Still, for Zimmer, the injuries and the play of backups filling in at key spots is just a sign of the team's mentality and attitude. And he thinks that bodes well for the final 11 games this season.

"We're missing a lot of guys, but this team has a lot of fight to them, they have a lot of character," Zimmer said. "We'll keep battling each week, and I think that's the definition of this football team. They're going to battle and fight each week, and hopefully we can continue to scrap out some wins."


• Conor Rhoda didn't get asked to do much Saturday, but what he did was good enough in the Gophers' much-needed 31-10 victory at Maryland to end their two-game Big Ten losing streak. Filling in for injured quarterback Mitch Leidner, Rhoda threw only 15 passes, completing seven for 82 yards. But he threw a screen pass that went for a 17-yard touchdown by Shannon Brooks. "[Rhoda] has great command, he really does. He knows what he's doing," Gophers coach Tracy Claeys told ESPN after the game. "Backup quarterback on a week's prep and you go on the road and win in the conference, it's a great job by him."

• The Gophers football team might have suffered a big loss when quarterback Jacques Perra, the 2013 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year at Roseville, decided to transfer to St. Thomas. Perra has completed 20 of 31 passes for 298 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in four games for the No. 4 Division III team in the country, which was off Saturday.

• Brian Lankford-Johnson was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week last week after he rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries in Purdue's 34-31 victory over Illinois. He used to play at Cretin-Derham Hall but transferred to Palm Bay Magnet High School in Melbourne, Fla., to gain more recruiting attention. Saturday, he ran only three times for 9 yards but also caught three passes for 47 yards in the Boilermakers' 49-35 loss to Iowa.

• Gophers cross- country standout Hamza Ali ran the fastest time in program history at the Twin Cities 5K last weekend. The 18-year-old from Minneapolis Washburn finished in 14 minutes, 47 seconds to win the event.

• The Twin Cities Dunkers distributed some $110,000 Thursday night to 14 Twin Cities public schools to help fund athletics programs.

• Former Vikings center John Sullivan didn't take any snaps on offense for the Redskins last week but did see four snaps on special teams.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: