The Rams and Patriots will meet in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3, despite both teams finishing in the bottom half of the NFL in total defense. Los Angeles was ranked 19th and New England was rated 21st.
But the Vikings continue to believe their best chance at a Super Bowl title depends on their defense, one of the best in the league. They finished fourth in total defense in 2018 (309.7 yards per game), after finishing first in 2017 and third in 2016.
Pro Football Focus this week recognized Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris in their 2018 season awards. Smith was recognized as the NFL’s most efficient tackler at his position in the NFL. He missed only one tackle on 406 run-defense snaps and three tackles on 571 pass-defense snaps.
Smith will be attending his fourth Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, but he told Vikings.com that he doesn’t play to earn personal accolades.
“This isn’t the goal, obviously,” Smith said. “It’s cool, kind of individual stuff, but that’s not really what this game’s about. I appreciate it and I take in the week, but it’s all about what the Vikings do. It’s not about this.”
Maybe the bigger surprise was how highly PFF ranked Harris, 27, who went undrafted in 2015 and just completed his fourth pro season.
They noted Harris led all safeties with at least 250 pass-coverage snaps in opponent passer rating. Harris allowed only 13 receptions for 52 yards and had three interceptions on 324 pass-coverage snaps.
But will Harris remain with the Vikings or sign with another team this offseason? He is an unrestricted free agent after earning $705,000 last season.
Warren stands out
Kevin Warren, the Vikings’ chief operating officer, continues to rack up superlatives in his field.
Warren became the first African-American COO in NFL history in 2015 and has been with the Vikings since 2005. Last week, Sports Business Journal/Sports Business Daily named him one of six people in their Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business for ’19.
Warren, 55, is the youngest person to ever receive the award. The publication wrote: “[Warren has] led an impressive turnaround of the Vikings while emerging as one of sport’s most powerful voices on diversity and inclusion.”
Warren also was a driving force in getting U.S. Bank Stadium approved for the Vikings by the Legislature.
U recruit on top squad
The Gophers’ lone basketball commitment so far for the Class of 2019 is Tre Williams out of Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah.
MaxPreps.com has Wasatch rated as the No. 4 high school team in the country through 20 games. Williams, a 6-5 wing, leads the team in scoring with 17.1 points per game and also averages 3.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds.
Meanwhile, a benefit for the Gophers in their quest to qualify for the NCAA tournament is that with a 14-5 overall record and 4-4 in Big Ten play, they have a really good chance of reaching 20 wins and finishing above .500 in conference play.
They have only four games remaining against ranked teams: two at home, including No. 19 Iowa on Sunday and a rematch with No. 5 Michigan on Feb. 21 after losing 59-57 in Ann Arbor on Tuesday.
They also travel to No. 6 Michigan State on Feb. 9 and finish the regular season at No. 13 Maryland on March 8.
The Gophers’ other remaining road games are at Purdue, Nebraska, Rutgers and Northwestern, who are a combined 14-18 in Big Ten play. Their other home games are with Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue, who are a combined 15-17 in the conference.
The latest NCAA bracket projections from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi have the Gophers as a No. 11 seed and facing VCU in a play-in game.
The Gophers won at Wisconsin in football and basketball this season for the first time since 1973. But Minnesota has really struggled against Michigan in those sports, especially football.
The Gophers have defeated the Wolverines in football only three times since 1978, all in Ann Arbor: 20-17 in 1986, 23-20 in 2005 and 30-14 in 2014.
That 2004-05 season also saw the Gophers win 71-54 at Michigan in basketball. Since then, the Gophers have won only five times against the Wolverines, most recently 83-78 in overtime in 2016-17.
There have been a lot of rumors this week that the Twins could be a mystery team going after big-time free agents Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. General Manager Thad Lavine was asked if it’s true.
“I think it’s up to [Chief Baseball Officer] Derek [Falvey] and myself to make sure we get two questions correct when we do make those types of pursuits: It’s the who and the when. It’s undeniable that Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are elite talents, it’s just a matter of what’s the right time for us to make those types of leaps. For our type of franchise, you are probably only doing it once. So I would say objectively I wouldn’t count us as the mystery team at this point, but we aspire to be more prominent than just a mystery team in the future.”
• The word is the Vikings will hire Marwan Maalouf as their new special teams coordinator Friday. Maalouf has been a Dolphins assistant special teams coach since 2013.
• Former Vikings center Matt Birk hosted a comedy show in Eagan to benefit three charities including the Minnesota Vikings Foundation. A number of former Vikings attended, including Jim Kleinsasser, Chris Liwienski, Brooks Bollinger and Chuck Foreman.
• Former DeLaSalle standout Reid Travis will play maybe his biggest game for No. 8 Kentucky on Saturday when they face No. 9 Kansas in Lexington, Ky. Travis is averaging 12.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. … Former Lakeville North standout J.P. Macura is with the Charlotte Hornets this season and has appeared in one game.
• Former Hill-Murray star Jake Guentzel is leading the Pittsburgh Penguins in goals with 24, which is also tied for the 19th most in the NHL. His father, Mike Guentzel — who coached with the Gophers men’s hockey team for over 20 seasons and was let go when Bob Motzko was hired — is working as a pro scout with the Arizona Coyotes.