They returned from their brief Thanksgiving break Monday as one of four NFL teams with nine victories, owners of the second-best record in the NFC and an inside path to a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The 9-2 Vikings, though, are not without their flaws. What’s more, they’re making no attempt to gloss over them.
Whether because of hard-earned lessons from a 5-0 start followed by a 3-8 finish last year, or because they’ve taken on coach Mike Zimmer’s exacting nature, the Vikings seem in no hurry to tout their Super Bowl credentials at this point. Not with two critical road games coming up, a playoff spot still to be clinched and a few weaknesses to upgrade.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 9-2, 11-0 or 2-9, [Zimmer is] going to focus on what we’re not doing well,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “That’s just kind of the way we go about things here, and it’s always better to go back and make corrections after a win. They’re a lot easier to make after wins, but wins don’t cover that up.”
Special teams was likely at the top of the list after the Vikings’ 30-23 victory over the Detroit Lions last Thursday, a game that could have caused the Vikings less anxiety had they not had a field goal and an extra point blocked.
The Vikings also had a 38-yard Marcus Sherels kick return wiped out by a holding penalty, and Kai Forbath’s final field-goal attempt of the day was blocked by Darius Slay, though the Lions defensive back was flagged for jumping offside in a desperate attempt to keep the Vikings from building a two-possession lead in the game’s final minute.
“We have to get better in that area,” Zimmer said Friday. “I don’t think it was really the kicker. He didn’t really get an opportunity. Like I said, the one we didn’t get the ball caught and put on the ground good enough and the other one got blocked. I don’t really think it was [Forbath]. We had a couple poor punts. We had a couple good punts. We didn’t cover very well — well enough, anyway. In general, we have to be better on special teams.”
And while the Vikings have allowed only 12 sacks — tied for the fewest in the league — they’ve needed some ingenuity to avoid giving up more of them. According to Football Outsiders, Vikings quarterbacks have been pressured on 34.6 percent of their dropbacks this seasons, which is the fifth-highest figure in the league.
Zimmer said Friday he thought the Vikings protected Case Keenum well against the Lions, adding the quarterback “kind of held the ball too long” on the two plays he was sacked.
Only the Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars are among the top 10 teams in both the fewest sacks allowed and the most pressured QBs. It’s a pattern that might be damaging to the Vikings’ future success.
The characteristic Zimmer has praised about his team perhaps more than any other, though, is its ability to focus on the here and now without getting sidetracked by the stratospheric possibilities that come with a seven-game winning streak.
That stems from a roster with enough veterans to check any trace of overconfidence.
“I think a lot of guys come from powerhouse colleges where we’ve won a lot of games,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “It’s a lot harder to win ballgames in the NFL than it is in college for those big powerhouse colleges. So it’s hard for those guys to understand that it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a winless team; it doesn’t matter if it’s an undefeated team. All of them are just as hard to get as the last one.”
And so the Vikings continue their process of winning games and showing up the next day for film review, knowing much of what they hear from their coach — about what they need to do better — isn’t going to change because of a victory.
“It just puts him in a little better mood,” Rudolph said.
Refinement isn’t glamorous, but the Vikings welcome it.
“We trust our process,” Keenum said. “No matter what the outcome may have been, no matter what the past [was], we’re letting all that go, because everything we want is right in front of us. We’ve got to take it a week at a time, but trust that process that’s been the same every week: It’s ‘learn from your mistakes, and get better.’ ”