Not too long ago, the Vikings sat, stunned and silent and shoulder to shoulder, in a locker room in Buffalo, wondering what it would take to stop their free fall after a last-second loss dropped them to 2-5.
Their offense could hardly get anything going. Their defense couldn’t get a stop when they needed one most. And a three-game losing streak had some folks outside the walls of that cramped locker room prematurely looking ahead to next season for a second straight October.
But two weeks and two narrow wins later, the latest coming by a 29-26 score after a seesaw second half with the Washington Redskins, the Vikings bounced around their spacious locker room at TCF Bank Stadium and couldn’t contain their optimism about the direction their team could suddenly be heading.
“In the NFL, you get on a roll and there is no telling where it can take you,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said.
And while coach Mike Zimmer still isn’t quite over that fourth-and-20 play that cost the Vikings a win against the Bills, even he couldn’t help but crack a smirk, especially when talking about the satisfaction he felt in the way that his young team has been able to regroup after their season seemed to be on the brink.
“I always love to prove people wrong and hopefully the team does too,” Zimmer said. “You know everybody said we can’t win games in the fourth quarter after we lost that Buffalo game but we’ve won two games in the fourth quarter now at the end, and that’s a credit to our resiliency and the way that we work. I still wish I had that fourth and 20 back, but it is what it is.”
The Vikings head into their bye week on a modest two-game winning streak, and those victories came against teams with losing records. But it is how the Vikings won those games that pleases Zimmer. In both, the Vikings dug themselves out of fourth-quarter deficits and found a way to win close games.
And in Sunday’s win, the offense carried its weight for once, and the defense, despite a subpar effort compared to recent weeks, made sure there were no fourth-and-20 flashbacks.
“They handled an awful lot of adversity throughout the ballgame,” Zimmer said. “I felt like our team grew up today in a lot of different ways because they could have folded the tents early. We went down 10 to nothing, but we kept fighting and fighting.”
The offense, which hasn’t scored a first-quarter touchdown since Week 4, got off to another slow start, mostly because rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t able to throw an accurate deep ball.
Bridgewater overshot wide receiver Greg Jennings on the first drive of the game. He then missed wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who was streaking down the field without a defender within 20 yards, on the second. Patterson threw up his hands in frustration as that pass sailed over his head.
But cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s interception of Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III late in the second quarter gave the struggling offense the ball near midfield. Four plays later, Bridgewater found tight end Chase Ford in the end zone for the first touchdown of Ford’s career.
The touchdown pulled the Vikings within three points, 10-7, at the half and ignited an offense that had been a dud over the past month, averaging just 10.5 points in the previous four games.
Running back Matt Asiata dove in for a goal-line touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter, starting a back-and-forth second half that featured six scores and five lead changes.
With Bridgewater settling in and finding his touch on intermediate and deeper throws, the Vikings scored three second-half touchdowns and took the lead, 29-26, when Asiata scored his third touchdown with three minutes and 27 seconds left.
“Sometimes you’re going to have some slow starts, but it’s all about how you finish the game,” Bridgewater said.
That put the pressure back on Zimmer’s defense, which had squandered late leads the previous two weeks.
This time, there was little suspense as Griffin’s pass hit the turf on 4th and 6 and his last-second desperation heave landed out of bounds, sending the Vikings into the locker room with a second straight win.
They also earned a reward from Zimmer: only one day of practice during their bye week.
“I told them [if] they make me happy, I make them happy,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings certainly were as they headed out of the locker room, knowing that they remained in the picture in the NFC North and would get a week to rest their bodies and recharge their batteries.
The struggling Chicago Bears are up next after the bye week, followed by three games in a row at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings still have four games remaining against NFC North foes in the season’s final seven weeks.
“The way I’m going to look at it is as long as we win the next game, then we’ve got a shot at the playoffs,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Keep looking it as that: just win the next game.”