After three hours of watching their sweat freeze, the Vikings linebackers made the long trek from the elements into the warmth of the locker room. Chad Greenway, their leader, exhibited veteran savvy by grabbing a hot cup of coffee before leading the younger linebackers back onto the frigid field for a photo.
“It was a year-end thing,’’ Greenway said. “We might not play here again.’’
Greenway said that moments after his team made a return to TCF Bank Stadium a possibility. Instead of grabbing a chunk of turf as a souvenir, the Vikings seized a little confidence, as well as a playoff berth, with their widest victory margin since the last game of the 2009 season.
At the end of a tumultuous day in the NFL, the Vikings established that they can win predictably and professionally, in prime time and under pressure. They beat the New York Giants 49-17, meaning they could see their playoff future as clearly as their breath.
“This was one of our goals, getting into the playoffs,’’ tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “We still want to go win our division and hope we have another game here. I think we can beat anybody on any Sunday when we play our game.’’
When they lost by 31 points to Seattle in the first game in December, the Vikings looked discomfited and vulnerable. In their last two games at TCF Bank Stadium, they produced their two largest winning margins of the season, qualifying for the playoffs and auditioning for the franchise’s biggest game since 2012.
This Sunday, the Vikings will play at Lambeau Field for a division title. After five years of generally mediocre play, the Vikings may have chosen a pretty good time to be pretty good.
“We’ll get their best shot,” Rudolph said. “I do think our best shot is good enough, if we play well.’’
If they bothered to watch other football games on Sunday, they would have realized that there are no mathematical possibilities in the NFC that should be considered outlandish. The Packers lost 38-8 in Arizona, and the previously undefeated Panthers lost at Atlanta, both results hinting at greater meaning because of the Vikings’ performances in those places.
The Vikings beat Atlanta and almost beat Arizona without three of their best defensive players in Glendale on a short week. While the Packers were manhandled, the Vikings were within one positive offensive play of attempting a field goal that would have sent them to overtime with the Cardinals.
So on the night of Jan. 3, the Vikings will play in Green Bay for their first division championship since 2009 and only their third since 2000. They will play for only their second season with 11 victories or more since then. In a league that celebrates the gravitational pull of mediocrity, the Vikings, in their second year under Mike Zimmer, may be pulling away from the pack and their recent past.
Nose tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith returned from injuries Sunday night, meaning the Vikings were as healthy as they have been all season. Smith returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown. Joseph left the game after aggravating his foot injury but was able to return.
After the Packers’ debacle in the desert, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “When it matters, for all the marbles, we’re going to show up.”
The Vikings’ loss in the desert led to two dominant performances at the Vikings’ temporary and perhaps former home. Next week’s game will be played at a slightly more traditional venue and will mean a little more.
“It’s huge for us as a young football team to be playing our best football in December,” Rudolph said. “You want to be playing in January with the opportunity to win a Super Bowl. So many times, all you have to do is get in and you have a chance.
“We’re not finished yet. We want to win this division. To do that, we’re going to have to go through the champs, in Green Bay.”
One frozen Sunday night led to another. Greenway may want to bring his camera to Lambeau, just in case.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On