Two weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of a deflating 17-point loss in the season opener, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer nodded toward the San Francisco 49ers locker room and remarked that he wished that his team, the one he hardly recognized on the field, looked like the other guys.
The 49ers had just pushed around the Vikings on both sides of the ball, bringing their ground game to a halt, overwhelming their quarterback and running all over them on offense.
“They were much more physical than we were,” Zimmer said after the 20-3 loss. “That’s more of [the kind of] team that I would like to be like.”
The Vikings have responded by looking exactly like the aggressive, hard-hitting bunch that Zimmer longed for that late, late night in San Francisco.
By beating a pair of talented teams with capable quarterbacks by double digits in consecutive weeks, the Vikings have made their dud of a season opener feel like a distant memory. In the process, they started establishing an identity as a football team, something they were never really able to do during Zimmer’s first season.
“I do like the physical nature of our team the last couple of weeks,” Zimmer said Monday, a day after the Vikings stomped the Chargers 31-14. “Football has been around so long, and it always comes down to a physical game at the end. I want us to continue that way. I hope that is our identity going forward, but we’ll see. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
Against the Detroit Lions in Week 2, the Vikings plugged their leaks on run defense and pummeled quarterback Matthew Stafford to the point that he needed X-rays on his chest and ribs after the game. Offensively, the Vikings rode running back Adrian Peterson hard on the way to their 26-16 victory.
The Vikings followed the same blueprint against the Chargers at TCF Bank Stadium, but they executed Zimmer’s plan even more efficiently.
They limited the Chargers, who are better at running the ball than the Lions and certainly more committed, to 3.2 yards per carry. They blitzed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers on 17 of his 38 dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and racked up four sacks and a dozen QB hits. And Peterson rumbled for 6.3 yards per carry and a pair of touchdowns.
The past two weeks, Peterson had more carries (49) than quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had pass attempts (42). The offense produced 50 points.
“I like what he brings to this football team — the mind-set, the intensity, the viciousness that we have,” Zimmer said of Peterson. “I think it carries over throughout the team.”
While the players acknowledge there is a lot of season left, they see the past two weeks as validation after sleepwalking through the season opener. They vowed to be better than that, and it has been hard to quibble with their response.
“We had five weeks of training camp, five weeks of preseason. We knew this group could be very special,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, adding, “These guys in the locker room, we feel like we’ve got something to prove. Our goal is to make the playoffs and to be holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.”
That goal is lofty, yes, but 31 other teams started with similar aspirations. Three weeks into the season, though, the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers are the only two teams in the NFC North that have the look of a playoff contender.
The Lions and Chicago Bears are both hapless and winless, leaving the 2-1 Vikings as seemingly the only threat to unseat the Packers, who were 2-0 heading into Monday night’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field.
But the 49ers, who were outscored 90-25 the past two weeks, serve as a reminder that things can change quickly in the NFL — not that the Vikings needed one.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a two-horse race in this division,” Munnerlyn said. “We’ve still got to go out there and win games, and it starts with this Sunday.”
The Vikings will travel to play the undefeated Denver Broncos on Sunday, and their defenders on Monday already were looking ahead to their matchup with Peyton Manning, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history.
The Vikings will head into that game with plenty of confidence. Perhaps more important, they will enter Sports Authority Field at Mile High with an identity.
“We just want to make sure that people know how we play football here and this is the way we play,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “The past two games, that’s how we are going to play for the rest of the season. … We’ve got a chance to be a really good team here.”