There’s an argument to be made that last week was the best combined stretch of football for the Gophers and the Vikings since the NFL came to Minnesota in 1961.
It marked only the second time the Gophers won a bowl game and the Vikings won a playoff game in the same week. In the 2004 season, the Gophers defeated Alabama 20-16 in the Music City Bowl on December 31, 2004, and the Vikings defeated the Packers 31-17 at Lambeau Field on January 9, 2005, in an NFC wild-card matchup.
The similarities between that season and last week, when the Gophers defeated Auburn 31-24 at the Outback Bowl on Wednesday and the Vikings defeated the Saints 26-20 in overtime in New Orleans on Sunday, are evident.
Both times the Gophers had to defeat an SEC opponent who was considered vastly superior and the Vikings had to go win a contest in hostile territory. The pundits weren’t giving either team a shot.
This past week, the Gophers were seven-point underdogs to Auburn while the Vikings were 7½-point underdogs to the Saints.
In that 2004 postseason, the Gophers were three-point underdogs to Alabama while the Vikings were 6½-point underdogs to the Packers.
Still, you’d have to say that the 2004 Gophers team, which finished the season 7-5 overall and just 3-5 in Big Ten Play, didn’t come anywhere near the 11-2 campaign that P.J. Fleck’s squad put together this year.
And that 2004 Vikings season was just average, as they finished the regular season 8-7-1 compared with the 10-6 mark that Mike Zimmer’s club had going into its wild-card matchup with the Saints.
Yes, football fans in this state should be rejoicing with this stretch of surprise victories and excellent seasons, and the fact is that the Vikings have a real shot to compete with the 49ers this weekend to try to reach the NFC Championship Game.
In 2005, they followed their victory over the Packers with a loss at Philadelphia. But that Eagles club was coming off three straight NFC Championship Game appearances and ended up reaching the Super Bowl after beating the Vikings.
This 49ers club may be excellent, but they don’t have the playoff pedigree that then-Eagles coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb brought to that victory over the Vikings.
The fact is that San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan and their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo have never appeared in a playoff game.
In the 49ers’ regular-season finale, the Seahawks had the ball at the 1-yard-line late in the fourth quarter. If they had punched the ball in for a touchdown and won the game, the 49ers would have been the No. 5 seed in the NFC, not No. 1.
Cook, Thielen healthy
If you want one reason why no one was giving the Vikings a shot vs. the Saints and why a lot of people think they have a shot against the 49ers, look no further than the health of wide receiver Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook.
The fact is that those two players struggled with injuries all season and the Vikings were not the same club when they weren’t on the field together.
There was a lot of uncertainty with how healthy both players were, but they looked like their old selves against the Saints.
Thielen had totaled just three receptions for 27 yards in the two games before catching a team-high seven passes for 129 yards against the Saints. Cook had rushed for just 144 yards in the four games before he was shelved for the final two regular-season games.
Against the Saints, Cook rushed for 94 yards, scored two touchdowns and added three receptions for 36 yards. It was his best day since Week 7, when he rushed for 142 yards against the Lions.
Thielen, of course, made the greatest catch of his career on Sunday, when Kirk Cousins lobbed a 43-yard pass to him in overtime that set up the winning touchdown to lead the Vikings to the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the 49ers on Saturday.
Thielen has been doing this his whole career for the Vikings, making big catch after big catch. And there’s no doubt this has been his most difficult season, having missed multiple games for the first time in his six-year NFL career. That had to make his contribution on Sunday all the more rewarding for the former Minnesota State Mankato standout.
After having back-to-back years with over 1,000 receiving yards, Thielen this year finished with just 418 on 30 receptions in 10 games.
He described what it was like to make the most important catch of his career.
“Kirk just gave me a shot,” Thielen said. “It couldn’t have been [a more] perfect ball. Something we haven’t thrown for a long time. We had been practicing it and things like that, but never thought it would come in that situation. But obviously just kudos to him. That thing dropped right in the bucket and thankful that he is our guy back there.”
The All-Pro wide receiver told me before the Saints game that he was feeling healthier than he had in years, and that has to bode well for the Vikings’ chances against the 49ers on Saturday.
Cook changes offense
There is no doubt that with Cook healthy, the entire offense runs more smoothly.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski told me earlier this season how Cook changes the Vikings’ game plan.
“We have seen over the course of the season that when he gets the ball in space it is hard for defenses to get him down,” Stefanski said. “Whether we hand it to him or throw it to him, he’s making plays, making explosive plays. In this day and age you need those to be able to move the ball on any defense, because there are some really stout defenses out there.”
Cook, meanwhile, said he knows that having balance between the running and passing game is what turned this offense into one of the best in the league when everyone was healthy.
“It shows that if you can run the football and you can get players involved in the passing game, it opens a lot up for a lot of other people,” he said. “Rudy [Kyle Rudolph] has been doing his thing. We get Adam back, we know what he’s going to do. Olabisi [Johnson] has been stepping up. It can open a lot of people up once guys are trying to key in on us, I guess. It has been great playing with these guys all year.”