There are two home games left on the Vikings’ schedule next month. There could be more games played at U.S. Bank Stadium in January, as the distance gets shorter between the Vikings and the distinction of being the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
As much as ever on Sunday, the Vikings looked capable of finishing that journey.
Their 24-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, in a matchup of two of the three teams tied for the second-best record in the NFC, saw the Vikings assert themselves as legitimate contenders in the conference as they begin their most difficult road stretch of the season.
The win helped them maintain a two-game lead in the NFC North over the Detroit Lions (whom the Vikings will face at Ford Field on Thanksgiving). The Vikings have secured tiebreaker advantages over the New Orleans Saints, who also improved to 8-2, and the Rams in the race for a first-round bye.
“Even through adversity and the tough moments in the game, we stay composed. We go out there and we fight and we stick together,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “We hold each other accountable, and this is the best team I have been a part of. It’s an excellent feeling being 8-2, in our division [and] in the NFC.”
Played before a vociferous crowd of 66,809 at U.S. Bank Stadium, the game felt as close to a playoff matchup as anything Vikings fans have witnessed in the building’s 15 months of hosting football games.
Their defense held the Rams’ top-ranked offense — which had posted 117 points the previous three games — to seven points and less than 200 yards of total offense in the first 50 minutes of the game. Running back Todd Gurley managed only 37 yards on 15 carries, with none of his runs covering more than 8 yards, and the Vikings kept the Rams from finding the running back on the short throws they’ve used to great effect this season.
When the Rams threatened to take a 14-7 lead at the end of the first half, safety Anthony Harris ripped the ball from Cooper Kupp’s hands a yard from the goal line following a reception, recovering the fumble he forced and denying Los Angeles a chance to go into halftime up a touchdown.
And against his former team, Case Keenum was efficient enough to keep the Vikings offense moving. He avoided a big mistake on a couple of throws that could have been intercepted. Keenum completed 27 of his 38 passes for 280 yards, with 65 of them coming on one play as Adam Thielen turned a short throw into the score that put the Rams away with 10 minutes, 14 seconds remaining.
The Vikings’ run game, which came into the day ranked 10th in the league, gained 171 yards and helped drain the Rams of timeouts with a nearly-six-minute drive later in the fourth quarter that ended with a Kai Forbath field goal.
“I thought the offense made some great conversions,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “The drive that we had at the end of the ballgame where we were milking that clock, I thought that was huge: go down there and kick the field goal.”
The Vikings will next play at home Dec. 17, when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town in Zimmer’s first game against a team for which he was defensive coordinator before becoming Vikings head coach in 2014. Their Thanksgiving matchup against the Lions begins a three-game, 17-day road swing against clubs with a combined 18-11 record.
That stretch could go a long way toward defining the Vikings’ playoff position before they return home. On Sunday, no less a player than 39-year-old Terence Newman was preaching perspective.
“Once we get to the point where that last game happens in the regular season, hopefully we’re in a good position,” the cornerback said. “That’s the goal, but for me, teams are judged after you finish the season. A lot of guys want to talk about how we’ve strung a couple wins together. We’ve got eight. For me, I’ve been doing this way too long. I know things can go south just as quickly as they go the other way.”
But the Vikings have marched past two tough opponents to begin the second half of their season, and their winning streak now sits at six. The next six could put them in position to spend much of January at home, as they seek to become the first team to play there in February.
“[Offensive coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] has been preaching it to us all year: You look around the league and why not us?” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Why can’t it be us? We could beat ourselves and that could be why it can’t be us. We try and go out each and every week and not beat ourselves. We have a pretty good defense that we play with and they usually set us up in pretty good situations and we have to take advantage.”