It was easy, and proper, to offer Mike Zimmer and the Vikings excuses at this time last year.
They had lost their Hall-of-Fame running back, starting tight end, planned starting quarterback and free-agent defensive tackle to, respectively, a 15-game suspension, injuries and a gunshot wound.
They were forced to spend Zimmer’s first year as head coach developing a rookie quarterback they hadn’t intended to take while installing new offensive and defensive systems on a team that had finished 5-10-1 the previous year.
Zimmer did well to win seven games under those circumstances in 2014.
If he fails to win 10 this year, you can consider his second winter on the job to be a failure.
There are three games remaining in the season. The Vikings are 8-5. They have the fourth-best record in the NFC and hold a two-game lead over every team with a chance to knock them out of the playoffs.
After playing in Arizona last Thursday night, the Vikings have 10 days to get their key players healthy. When they face the 5-8 Chicago Bears on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings should be expected to win, perhaps handily, over a team that couldn’t beat Wasington at home this weekend.
The Vikings also should be expected to win their following game, against the New York Giants at TCF on Dec. 27. The Giants are 5-7 and failing to dominate the awful NFC East despite having the only healthy established quarterback in the division.
If the Vikings win those two home games in a span of eight days, they will be 10-5 and will secure a playoff spot no matter what any other team does. Do they control their destiny? That’s a little metaphysical. Can they control making the playoffs? Yes.
In fact, nothing less should be acceptable for the folks at Winter Park.
Win two home games to reach 10 victories and the playoffs in Zimmer’s second year, the Vikings will be playing with house money the rest of the winter. Beat the Packers in Lambeau on Jan. 3, and Zimmer can be praised for having enjoyed accelerated success. Win a playoff game, and he will have won more than Leslie Frazier and as many as Brad Childress, without needing the services of Brett Favre.
There has been a feeling around Winter Park since the hiring of Zimmer and the arrival of Norv Turner, Bridgewater and Anthony Barr that the historically dysfunctional Minnesota Vikings had built a template for long-term stability, and long-term stability in the NFL exists only if the team wins.
Ownership is willing to spend on the product, even if the Wilfs did finagle a highly advantageous stadium deal.
General Manager Rick Spielman has built a strong front office and a talented young roster.
Zimmer has brought highly specific coaching expertise, a gruff form of leadership that plays well in Minnesota and the sense that he would never want to leave.
Whatever his variations as a player, Bridgewater is a strong, solid personality.
Win two games in the next two weeks at TCF Bank Stadium, and the Vikings will have reached the appropriate milepost at the appropriate time.
Lose either, and these will feel like the same ol’ Minnesota Vikings, raising expectations only to lose improbably when it matters most.