Perhaps only Vikings fans could enjoy these words Sunday in the land of frozen nostrils:
The door is wide open.
With a 23-10 victory over the Chicago Bears on a frigid New Year’s Eve, the Vikings earned the second seed in the NFC playoffs, while the top seed, the Philadelphia Eagles, watched their quarterback throw the football as if it were soaked in cheesesteak grease and filled with shattered dreams.
Whether the Vikings are the best team in the NFC remains to be determined, but at the very least they appear to be the best team in the NFC with a high-functioning quarterback and a first-round bye. If the road to the Super Bowl runs through Philadelphia, the Vikings shouldn’t mind taking one more chartered flight to play for an invitation to their own stadium for Super Bowl LII.
The Vikings are the team to beat in the NFC.
Whether you view that as beneficial depends on whether your memory reaches past October 2017.
“I’m proud of this team,’’ Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Thirteen wins is hard to get.’’
This being the land of windchill and worriers, it is not contradictory to celebrate the second-highest victory total in franchise history, acknowledge that the Vikings dismantled their past three opponents, and ask whether they are properly primed for the playoffs.
Their defense may be peaking. Since the Vikings lost at Carolina, the defense has allowed just one offensive touchdown. Sunday, the Bears’ offense produced zero points. The Bears’ only score came on a misdirection punt return. The Vikings’ defense ranked first in the NFL in the categories that matter, and set a record for preventing third-down conversions.
“We rode our defense the whole season,’’ receiver Adam Thielen said. “As an offense, we’ve got to take the pressure off of them.’’
That was the truest sentence spoken in the locker room Sunday afternoon. The offense has performed efficiently but cautiously the past three weeks. The Vikings haven’t played a good team since they lost at Carolina on Dec. 10, and haven’t beaten a good team since they were in Atlanta on Dec. 3.
By the time they play in their first playoff, the Vikings will have gone more than a month without trailing or needing to make a winning play on offense. In that time, they have made few big plays downfield, and on Sunday, the Bears gave Vikings quarterback Case Keenum trouble early in the game by blitzing and stunting to free rushers up the middle.
Keenum is an expert scrambler who throws well on the run. He’s also relatively short for a quarterback and has trouble seeing over up-the-middle rushers. Expect to see defenses learn from the Bears.
“I thought we missed some things,’’ Zimmer said of Keenum, before praising his overall performance.
Not that Zimmer sounded troubled. He praised his defense and the caliber of players on his roster. Asked what a reporter admitted was a “mystical’’ question about the possibility of playing at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4, Zimmer said, “Maybe lightning will strike.’’
The Eagles have already been zapped. The NFC’s top seed has looked toothless since quarterback Carson Wentz was lost for the season. Nick Foles, his replacement, on Sunday completed four of 11 passes for 39 yards, with an interception. The Eagles were shut out by a Cowboys team playing on the road with nothing on the line.
By signing Keenum, the Vikings wound up with a dramatic advantage at quarterback over the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
If you’re keen on franchise history, the Vikings’ new status as conference favorites may worry you. They have won one playoff game in the past 13 years and have lost their past five conference championship games.
“The last five years, one of the two teams that had the bye represented the NFC in the Super Bowl,’’ Zimmer said. “So that’s big.’’
Zimmer wasn’t hiding his ambition. When you win 13 games, there isn’t much use.
The Vikings are the team to beat in the NFC. In January, we’ll find out whether they can handle that kind of pressure.