The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
I hadn’t even gotten down to the visitors’ locker room at EverBank Field after yesterday’s 25-16 win when the first email popped into my inbox.
This one read: “This game today they never, never should have won.”
During my elevator ride, similar sentiments were being expressed on Twitter, where in 140 characters and with the help of trash-can emojis some Vikings fans displayed impressive efficiency in summing up how awful their squad looked against a Jaguars team with only two wins.
Guess what? These Vikings need wins, regardless of how aesthetically unpleasing they are, to keep hope alive. And if they are going to play their way back to the postseason, it ain’t going to be pretty. So, if you’re one of the few still on the bandwagon, embrace the ugliness.
It is not often that a road team can win after losing the turnover battle, getting flagged seven times for 93 yards, missing a key PAT and twice failing to score after getting to the 1-yard line. But here we are.
“You take it. It’s tough to win the NFL. So you take them how they come,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, whose sly grin suggested that the defensive-minded Vikings almost prefer winning this way.
While this offense looks drastically different than the one we saw a year ago, the Vikings are back to basically the same formula that got them 11 wins last season and their first NFC North title since 2009. They must lean on defense and special teams to win low-scoring games.
Critical mistakes late in games twice doomed them against the Lions and also prevented them from upsetting the Cowboys last week. But the Vikings finally displayed a killer instinct in all three phases while closing out the Jaguars, suggesting they might still have a chance here.
After Matt Asiata’s fourth-quarter fumble at the 1-yard line, the offense marched right back down the field to make it a two-score game with Sam Bradford’s 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The defense then put the clamps on at midfield and the Vikings blocked a long field-goal try by the Jaguars, who had no choice but to kick it to pull within one score, recover an onside kick then heave a Hail Mary.
This was only their second win in eight games. But oddly enough, there was an air of confidence in the Vikings locker room. As unrealistic as it may seem to outsiders, there remains believe that they aren’t yet done.
“I think this was the game that we needed to kind of restart the engine and make sure guys were back in it,” left guard Alex Boone said.
Despite losing another offensive lineman, the Vikings totaled 377 yards, most of them through the air, against Jacksonville’s top-five defense.
If not for that penalty-plagued drive in the third quarter, Mike Zimmer’s defense would have kept the Jaguars out of the end zone yesterday.
And despite a PAT shank that would have made Blair Walsh blush, Kai Forbath remains perfect on field goals, stabilizing the kicker position.
Maybe the other shoe will splatter the Vikings this weekend when the Colts come to town or the following week at Lambeau Field. Or maybe they will grind out three more wins — and still miss the playoffs.
But for now, the Vikings are looking at this final push as an eight-round playoff that ends with the Super Bowl. One down, seven more to go.
“It’s winning time for us. Obviously we know what situation we’re in. We have to win to essentially advance,” veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We won and we’re on to the next round. We just have to have that mentality. It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win.”
Avert your eyes if you must, but don’t turn your back on them quite yet.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Young lineman Zac Kerin played 21 offensive snaps, most of them at right guard, after Brandon Fusco suffered his second concussion of the season. The Vikings have now gotten at least one offensive lineman knocked out of the game in seven of their 13 games this season.
2. For the fifth straight week, Adam Thielen led the wide receiver group in snaps. This week, he played 45 out of 66 offensive snaps, seven more than Stefon Diggs. He also led the Vikings with 101 receiving yards on four catches. Cordarrelle Patterson played 32 snaps, Charles Johnson got 15 and Jarius Wright played four. Top pick Laquon Treadwell did not play on offense after an early ankle injury knocked him out of the game.
3. Anthony Harris, starting in place of the injured Harrison Smith, was one of four defenders to play every snap. The others were fellow safety Andrew Sendejo and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
4. The top three defensive ends on the depth chart all played at least 73 percent of the snaps Sunday. Brian Robison played 57, Everson Griffen played 53 and Danielle Hunter played 48. Each of them recorded at least one sack, too, as the Vikings took down Blake Bortles four times.
5. The Vikings offense put a little more muscle on the field against the Jaguars. Blocking tight end Rhett Ellison played 27 snaps and fullback Zach Line played 29. Those were season-high totals for both guys.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “As long as they keep on fighting and keep on crawling to get to that end zone, it’s going to happen for them.” — Griffen, perhaps speaking literally, on the struggles of the Vikings offense inside the red zone
2. “Whether it was a good or bad call, I just have to go out there and play ball and not have a temper tantrum and hurt my team.” — Xavier Rhodes on getting flagged, then briefly benched by Zimmer, after the cornerback barked at official for calling a holding penalty against him
3. “I couldn’t see where he was at to shake his hand.” — Zimmer, 11 days removed from emergency eye surgery, on needing help from the team’s head of security to find Jaguars coach Gus Bradly after the game
4. “I love being yelled at by him. I really do. I [expletive] love that guy.” — Boone on Zimmer being back on the sideline after a one-game absence
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. The Vikings were fortunate that Kai Forbath was still available in November. While Forbath missed a key PAT in the win over the Jaguars, he did his part by splitting the uprights on all four of his field-goal attempts, making him a perfect 10-for-10 in purple, and he showed some resolve by responding to his missed PAT by nailing the next one, which put the Vikings up by two scores late in the game. Given how he has kicked for the Vikings so far, and his track record with the Redskins at the start of his career, I find it hard to believe that there were 32 better kickers than him before the Vikings signed him. The Vikings erred by hanging onto Blair Walsh too long, and his abysmal performance in the first Lions loss looms larger and larger every week. But they appear to have stumbled upon a suitable option for next season in Forbath.
2. Alex Boone has turned out to be a good investment for the Vikings. Boone, the starting left guard, did not endear himself to the fan base early on. After a pair of shaky performances to start the season, he told the hometown fans to shut the bleep up when the Vikings have the ball at U.S. Bank Stadium. He play has quietly improved since then. He is not the best guard in the league by any stretch, but he has stabilized one spot on an offensive line that is getting shuffled every other week. An argument can be made that he should just let his play do the talking, but the Vikings wanted an in-your-face tone-setter up front to try to coax a little fire out of the rest of the guys. That leadership, in addition to his steady play in both pass protection and run blocking, has made Boone worth the four-year, $26.8 million contract he got last winter.
3. Adam Thielen is going to have some suitors after the season. Thielen, the former Minnesota State Mankato standout, will be a restricted free agent this offseason. So the Vikings will have the ability to keep the wide receiver and special-teams standout around if they choose. But if they aren’t careful, they can allow another team to drive his price up. Thielen has had a breakout season, and with 56 catches for 758 yards, he has an outside chance at reaching 1,000 yards on the year. On the open market, he could command more cash than Cordarrelle Patterson, his good buddy and a former first-rounder who will be an unrestricted this offseason. To deter another team from making him a strong offer, the Vikings will probably have to slap a second-round restricted tender on Thielen, that way they get something in return if they do lose him.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. After completing three downfield throws that all gained at least 40 yards in the first half, why were there not more shots in the second?
2. What is the latest on starting center Joe Berger, who has now missed two games with a concussion suffered on Nov. 24? And is their concern when it comes to Fusco, who has now suffered two of them in 2016?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. While the Vikings don’t have the most injured players in the league, even if it might feel like it, they have to be up there when it comes to injured former first-rounders. Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson are both on injured reserve, though Peterson may still return. So is Matt Kalil. The Vikings didn’t draft Jake Long and Andre Smith, but they were first-round picks by other teams. Sharrif Floyd has only played one game this season and Harrison Smith might not play another due to a severely sprained ankle. That is a lot of talent limping around.