The Vikings’ teams under coach Mike Zimmer have a ways to go, in terms of sustained success and playoff appearances, before they match the performance of the most-celebrated Vikings teams under coaches Bud Grant and Dennis Green.
But by one important metric — and one that matters very much to Vikings fans — they already have.
Dating back to their Jan. 3, 2016 win at Lambeau Field to snatch the NFC North title from the Packers’ grasp, the Vikings are 5-1-1 in their last seven games against their biggest rivals. To find a stretch of that much sustained Vikings success against the Packers, you’d have to go back to a streak that began before Brett Favre was the Packers’ quarterback and continued to his early days in Green Bay, before he’d helped make the team into the standard-bearer it became for so long in the NFC Central and North divisions.
While the Vikings’ tie against the Packers earlier this year makes direct comparisons a little tricky, the last time Green Bay beat Minnesota just once in a seven-game stretch came from Dec. 2, 1990 to Dec. 19, 1993, as the Vikings feasted on lesser lights such as Anthony Dilweg and Mike Tomczak at the beginning of the run before beating Favre in his first three starts against the Vikings. The run concluded with a victory at Milwaukee County Stadium, while the Packers were still playing three home games a year there. That was also the last time, before now, that the Vikings went two full seasons without losing a game to the Packers.
Many of the changes the Vikings have made in recent years, of course — giving Rick Spielman full control of the roster before the 2012 season, hiring Mike Zimmer in 2014, stocking a defense full of impact players in the ensuing years and paying Kirk Cousins $84 million this spring — have been aimed at closing the gap with the Packers. That makes sense for reasons beyond pure enmity, of course — the Vikings had to topple the longtime kings of the NFC North before they would be able to assert themselves as contenders — but it’s hard to imagine there’s not some sense of satisfaction within the walls of the Vikings’ Eagan headquarters this morning, even if it doesn’t quite resemble the glee such a feat would produce within the fanbase.
While the Vikings’ 24-17 win on Sunday night keeps them in playoff position (they’re currently fifth in the NFC), they’ve got a ways to go before proving they can make a run this season. Their win on Sunday night came against a 4-6-1 Packers team with a number of key injuries on defense and what appears to be a crisis of confidence on offense, with Aaron Rodgers throwing for only 116 yards before a late field goal drive pulled the Packers within seven. Speculation about coach Mike McCarthy’s job status figures to reach a fever pitch in the season’s final month, with even Rodgers admitting on Sunday night the Packers would likely need five straight wins, along with some help, to avoid missing the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Even if the shift in the balance of power in the rivalry owes something to the Packers’ regression as it does to the Vikings’ program-building, it’s striking to see things in their current state after looking so different for so long. The Vikings’ win wasn’t as emphatic — and the aftermath might not be as dramatic — as the Packers’ 31-3 win at the Metrodome, almost eight years to the day earlier, that got Brad Childress fired while Green Bay marched toward a Super Bowl championship, but Sunday’s game reminded me of that one in some respects. McCarthy went 15-4-1 in his first 20 games against the Packers, beating Zimmer in their first three matchups before the division title game loss at Lambeau at the end of the 2015 season. The Packers overhauled their front office last season, installing Brian Gutekunst as the GM and making it so McCarthy reports directly to team president Mark Murphy; if the coach loses his job at the end of the season, Sunday’s loss to the Vikings — the one that might have doomed the Packers’ playoff prospects — might represent the one that gave him the final push.
The Vikings, on the other hand, still haven’t beaten a team with a winning record — their .318 strength of victory is the worst among all NFC teams with a winning record, and only behind the Chargers’ .316 mark as the lowest among playoff contenders. They’ll start to find out how serious their chances are, beginning with a trip to New England on Sunday and continuing with a game in Seattle the following Monday. But as they maintained a puncher’s chance of catching the Bears in the NFC North, they prevented their nemesis from holding onto the same hope. And in the process, they continued to put their biggest rivalry in a state it hasn’t been for some time.