Latavius Murray had one of his best games of the season in the Vikings’ 23-10 victory over Chicago on Sunday, helping the team clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and win their 13th game, the second-highest mark in franchise history.
When the Vikings signed Murray to a three-year, $15 million deal in March, they were expecting the kind of numbers he eventually produced — 842 yards on 216 carries with eight scores, which tied for the sixth-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season.
But Murray’s season wasn’t that simple. Through the first six games of the season, he was averaging 16.2 yards per game and he didn’t score his first touchdown until Week 7.
But like so many Vikings this season, Murray stepped up when the team needed him. He only got better as he recovered from offseason ankle surgery and got more carries, and from Week 7 on Murray rushed for 745 yards, which tied for the fourth-highest total in the NFL during that stretch.
“People can look at the Baltimore game and say that was my breakout game,” Murray said about his Week 7 performance, when he rushed for 113 yards and his first touchdown. “For me, I just try to continue to improve. I just try to continue to get better, at practice and week by week. For me, that’s always been the most important thing.
“Obviously I wanted to go out there and translate on the field. I’ve continued to try to strengthen my ankle, rehab it so it continues to feel better and better and I’m still doing that.”
Now he will get a chance at his second playoff game, after reaching the postseason last year with the Raiders, where he rushed for 39 yards and a score in a 27-14 loss to Houston.
He was asked how important it was for the Vikings to get the first-round bye.
“A chance for us to heal and get some guys back healthy and take a minute to sit back and relax and maybe get away from everything for a little bit,” Murray said. “It’s been a very long season, so I think it will be good for us.”
What does the team need to work on?
“We need to continue to be better on third down,” he said. “Run the ball more efficiently; continue to do that and be better at that. Have some more explosive plays. I think collectively there are a lot of areas we can improve on. We have to figure it out and just try and get better over this next week.”
Diggs red-zone ready
Speaking of peaking at the right time, Stefon Diggs had his fourth consecutive game with at least five receptions and recorded his third game in a row with a touchdown.
Pro Football Focus ran a complimentary article on Diggs, saying he has the best red-zone wide receiver rating since 2016 and ranked him as having the 10th-best season for a receiver.
According to Pro Football Reference, Diggs had seven touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line, which was tied for the fourth-highest mark in the league and he caught 11 of 13 pass attempts targeting him inside the 20.
Diggs, for his part, said he never was concerned about receptions or where his numbers were throughout the season.
“I’ve been trying to do the same thing I’ve been doing,” he said. “Each and every day, I prepare the same way and try not to switch anything. I try to be the same guy no matter what. As far as touchdowns, they’re always nice, it’s fun. But I’m more concerned with whether we get a ‘W’, and after that, that’s when I’m really happy. On to the next one.”
Diggs finished with 849 yards on 64 receptions with eight touchdowns and caught 200 career passes in fewer games than any receiver in Vikings history.
Now he will get a shot at his second home playoff game, and unlike 2015 — when the Vikings lost 10-9 to Seattle in frigid conditions and Diggs had four receptions for 26 yards — he will get to play indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium.
That’s good news for the Vikings, as six of Diggs’ eight scores came at home.
Defense never rests
Harrison Smith, who was snubbed for a Pro Bowl spot despite being the best safety in the NFL, seems to embody what makes this Vikings defense so great.
The Vikings finished No. 1 in overall defense, allowing 275.9 yards per game. They had the No. 1 scoring defense, allowing 15.8 points per game. And they allowed only a 25.2 percent third-down conversion rate, by far the best mark in the league. Still, Smith said they have a lot more they can accomplish.
“I would not say we are great at this point,” he said. “I think that is what makes us play the way we do. The drive, the passion, the accountability, all those things.”
When asked if he ever thought the defense would put together this kind of season, Smith said he didn’t necessarily see it as important.
“Those are good things, things that help us win, and that is great. But the postseason is really what is important,” he said.
When asked about the confidence of the defense, cornerback Xavier Rhodes said one of the things that helps them perform at such a high level is preparation and accountability.
“We’ve been together for a while, and we know each other in and out,” he said. “We know what [coach Mike] Zimmer expects out of us, and we know that [defensive coordinator] George [Edwards] and our position coaches bring that out of us. We just try our best to not let each other down and not let the coaches down.”
• Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, the Timberwolves are in line to have the 20th overall pick in the 2018 draft, a pick they received from Oklahoma City. Meanwhile the Wolves’ first-round draft pick, currently slated at No. 24, would go to Atlanta. The Wolves do have control of their second-round pick this season, and next year their second-round draft pick will go to either Cleveland or Portland while they will receive Miami’s second-round pick. After next season, the Wolves have no picks coming or going for future drafts.
• Jimmy Shapiro of Bovada reports the Gophers’ NCAA men’s basketball championship odds have fallen to 100-1 after opening at 50-1.
• The NFL has done away with their usual lottery system to sell at least some face-value tickets to fans for the Super Bowl and instead will allow each club to surprise hand-picked fans with tickets. Meanwhile, Vikings season ticket-holders do have the option to buy tickets through the team. Those cost a minimum of $6,299 for upper-level seats and a three-hour pregame party, and go up to $14,499 per ticket for lower-level seats along the sidelines with the pregame party and in-game food and drinks.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday and at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org