LANDOVER, Md. – Through nine games of his fourth season as Vikings coach, Mike Zimmer finds himself in precisely the same spot he was at the same juncture of his second season: presiding over a 7-2 team that won its fifth game in a row with a victory on the road before a home game that could be critical to its playoff position.
“We have a chance to do something really special with this team, because we’ve got a bunch of fighters — guys that love to compete, guys that love to practice and play, guys that want to go out and do things right,” Zimmer said in his speech following a 38-30 victory over the Washington Redskins, adding a few adjectives that would be neither appropriate for the video clip on the team’s website nor printable in this newspaper. “We’ve got to pull together. Let’s not make this an individual thing. Let’s go out and continue to get better.”
Consider how remarkable it is that this Vikings club is in the same position as the 2015 edition, which had a first-round pick at quarterback and the NFL’s leading rusher in the backfield. These Vikings have cobbled together a top-10 running game, despite the fact they lost second-round pick Dalvin Cook to a torn knee ligament. They have started two quarterbacks, with it possibly only a matter of time before they turn to a third.
Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback on that 2015 team, made his emotional return to the Vikings active roster on Sunday at FedEx Field, reaching a major milestone 14 months after the knee injury that put his future in doubt. Bridgewater was in tears during the national anthem, but he didn’t see the field during a victory that showed why Case Keenum — winner of five of his seven starts — has both a strong claim to the starting job and a chance to lose it.
But even if their route to the top of the NFC North has been a bit circuitous, the Vikings keep picking up steam. They are tied for the second-best record in the NFC with the Los Angeles Rams, whom the Vikings will face at home on Sunday.
“I wish we’d played a little better defensively today, but it was an awful good win,” Zimmer said. “These games in this league are tough to win. When you score 38 points, you’re doing something right. I don’t think we played great with the lead, but we haven’t been in those situations very much. Hopefully, that’s a learning experience for us as well.”
Keenum carried a perfect passer rating well into the third quarter, connecting on four touchdown passes and drilling deep strikes to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs as the Vikings posted 28 points in the first half of a game for the first time since Nov. 30, 2014. He threw a career-high four touchdown passes, and ended the day with 304 passing yards on 21-for-29 passing.
Were it not for two throws in the third quarter, the Vikings might not have anything to think about before next Sunday’s home game against the NFC West-leading Rams. Keenum, though, threw a pair of interceptions that facilitated a Redskins comeback.
On the first, Keenum threw a late pass off his back foot intended for Kyle Rudolph, and D.J. Swearinger intercepted it to set up a long Washington drive. That drive would end with a fourth-down stop after Brian Robison — starting in place of injured Everson Griffen — batted down a Kirk Cousins pass.
But on Keenum’s next throw, Swearinger jumped an out route intended for Rudolph and took it back to the Vikings 2 before fumbling out of bounds.
“He’s an excitable guy, and he needs to understand when’s the good place and bad place [to throw] sometimes,” Zimmer said of Keenum.
Zimmer told Fox’s broadcast crew in a Saturday night production meeting that “Teddy Bridgewater will be our quarterback at some point,” and said after the game, “I’ve got a plan, and we’ll just see how it goes.
“Sometimes plans change, but we’ll see how it goes. We’ll sit down this week and we’ll visit about it and we’re going to go from there.”
Even with its warts, Keenum’s performance helped the Vikings win in a building where they have struggled in recent years, on a day where Washington moved the ball more effectively than any team has this season against the Minnesota defense.
The Redskins became the first team this season to score more than 26 points against the Vikings. Washington ended the day with 394 yards, the most any team has posted against the Vikings this season.
After the Redskins pulled within eight in the third quarter, though, Keenum directed a seven-minute drive that ended in Kai Forbath’s 53-yard field goal. Washington got within eight one more time, only to have its final onside kick attempt trickle out of bounds.
“We all knew Case was going to be the same guy on the next series [after the interception],” Thielen said. “It’s a great feeling to have when you know that quarterback is going to come out and compete just like he has the whole game.”
The Vikings’ gumption might be their greatest constant, in a season with more unrest than their record would suggest. Even as the parts change, the wagon keeps rolling.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org