The real Vikings showed up Sunday night. Now they are headed to the playoffs.
For the first time in three prime time games this season, the Vikings on Sunday night showed the football-watching American public their preferred style of football, relying on a fast, smothering defense and a careful, calculated offense to defeat a New York Giants team that had nothing to play for but pride at frigid TCF Bank Stadium.
With the 49-17 win, the Vikings secured their first playoff berth since 2012. They will head into the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field next weekend with a two-game winning streak and a chance to win their first division title since 2009 in another Sunday night spotlight game.
“I’m tired of watching Green Bay win it ever year, so [beating the Packers is] our No. 1 goal right now,” guard Brandon Fusco said.
The Vikings could have clinched a playoff berth before kickoff on Sunday, but the Atlanta Falcons handed Carolina its first loss and Seattle lost to already-eliminated St. Louis, keeping alive the possibility of a three-way tie with those two teams that would keep the Vikings out.
But the Vikings, specifically their defense, took care of it themselves Sunday night.
“I would have took it the other way,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “But you know, it’s always better when you do something yourself as opposed to relying on somebody else. That’s the opportunity we have in front of us and that was the opportunity we had tonight.”
The Vikings sacked Eli Manning four times. They allowed the Giants to convert just once on third or fourth down. And they picked off Manning three times, one of which was returned for a backbreaking touchdown by safety Harrison Smith.
While the Vikings offense got off to a slow start, their defense kept the Giants, who were without star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. as he served a one-game NFL suspension, under wraps and continued to put the offense in favorable starting field position.
Midway through the first quarter, safety Andrew Sendejo intercepted Manning and the Vikings started their next drive near midfield. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater made an impressive throw on the run to wide receiver Jarius Wright for an 18-yard gain. But the drive stalled and Blair Walsh booted a 32-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
The Giants went backward on their next drive. Defensive end Brian Robison sacked Manning on first down and the Giants lost another 13 yards on third down when Manning couldn’t handle a shotgun snap he might not have been expecting.
The Vikings offense would again take advantage of excellent field position. Starting in Giants territory, they went 44 yards in five plays, with Bridgewater capping off the touchdown drive with a 28-yard strike up the seam to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
With four minutes remaining in the second quarter, Manning overthrew Giants wide receiver Rueben Randle and was picked off by Smith, who sprinted down the left sideline untouched for a 35-yard score that made it 16-3. The interception return for a touchdown was the fourth of Smith’s career, a franchise record.
“Those guys up front, they played phenomenal,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They stopped the run, got after Eli Manning. In the back end, we covered them up. We went out there and we executed and we dominated the game.”
Munnerlyn intercepted Manning midway through the third quarter and returned it to the Giants’ 4. That set up Adrian Peterson for a 2-yard touchdown run. Peterson’s 10th touchdown run of the season made the score 29-3.
The Vikings, with the game put away, continued to pound the Giants with the running game. Peterson finished with 104 yards before making way for Jerick McKinnon, who added 89 yards and two touchdowns.
Bridgewater threw for 168 yards and a touchdown before Shaun Hill replaced him midway through the fourth quarter. And Walsh made all five of his field-goal attempts, including two from beyond 50 yards.
It was a complete performance in the “Sunday Night Football” spotlight by the Vikings, who got embarrassed in prime time in the season opener by the 49ers and lost a close one to the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago.
The Vikings will be back in prime time next Sunday against the Packers, who are also 10-5 after getting rocked by Arizona on Sunday. Last month, the Packers handled the Vikings easily at TCF Bank Stadium, 30-13.
So with the division on the line in prime time, will these Vikings show up again?
“It’s for the NFC North,” Munnerlyn said. “We know we’ve got to come out next week and play our style of game. It’s for all the marbles.”