Mike Zimmer, sporting a fresh-out-of-the-box gray NFC North champions hat, sat at the front of the team bus Sunday night as it waited to leave Lambeau Field.
After the biggest victory of his two-year tenure as Vikings coach, a pulse-pounding, stomach-churning, division-clinching thriller against the Green Bay Packers, Zimmer propped his right foot up on top of a handrail in front of him and flashed a wide grin.
In that moment, as he scrolled through the dozens of text messages from family and close friends along with football buddies whom he had not heard from in a while, and as he shared in the joy of his players as the celebration shifted from the locker room to the charter bus to the airport, Zimmer appeared to be savoring the victory.
A 59-year-old football lifer, Zimmer had been rejected by several NFL teams before the Vikings gave him a shot after the 2013 season. And within two years, he had taken a cellar-dwelling, five-win team all the way back to the top of its division.
But by the time the Vikings touched down at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport early Monday morning following a raucous 45-minute flight from Green Bay, Zimmer already had turned his attention to the next challenge, a red-hot Seattle Seahawks team that torched the Vikings by 31 points a month ago.
The signature win against their recent tormentors from Green Bay? That was just the next step in what Zimmer and the Vikings hope will be their path to the top.
“I don’t want this to be the defining moment in my career, for sure,” Zimmer said Monday after excusing his players from Winter Park early. “I hope that there’s a lot more on the horizon. I hope that there’s a lot more things to accomplish.”
Even if the Vikings fall again to the Seahawks in the wild-card playoff round, they appear to be a team still on the rise, not a one-and-done threat to the Packers in the NFC North. Their roster is stocked with young playmakers who soon will reach their primes, if they haven’t already, with several productive veterans sprinkled in.
But Zimmer said that in his 22 years coaching in the NFL, which started in Dallas and included stops in Atlanta and Cincinnati, he learned that opportunities like the one the Vikings now have in front of them can be few and far between.
“[I] won the Super Bowl in my second year and haven’t been back. It’s awful hard. When you get these opportunities, you have to try to take advantage of them,” Zimmer said. “I think a lot of our older guys understand that … and hopefully our young players, when we continue on in the future, they won’t take this for granted.”
Zimmer believes the mind-set of his football team changed after the Seahawks beat them 38-7 at TCF Bank Stadium on Dec. 6. Led by dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks jumped to a 35-0 lead in the third quarter. The smothering Seattle defense, one of the league’s best, held the Vikings to a season-low 125 yards.
“They pounded us,” Zimmer said.
But his Vikings responded by playing the Arizona Cardinals, the conference’s No. 2 playoff seed, tightly on the road four days later. Then the Vikings reeled off three consecutive victories, none more significant than beating the Packers at Lambeau for the first time since 2009.
For three quarters, the Vikings defense was dominant, holding the Packers to three points and scoring on a fumble return to help Minnesota take a 20-3 lead into the final quarter. The Packers rallied to pull within 20-13, but the exhausted defenders dug deep and sealed a Vikings victory with two late-game stands.
The emotions ran the gamut in the locker room afterward. Some were jubilant. Others were relieved. And many defensive starters were flat-out exhausted.
“It feels great to come to Lambeau and get the win,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, subdued by his typically chatty standards immediately after the win. “It was a nail-biter, and we got it done.”
By late Monday morning, the excitement of winning the NFC North with a 11-5 record had seemingly died down among the players. The few sleepy-eyed regulars who ventured into the locker room during media availability after the players had been dismissed for “Victory Monday” all followed the lead of their unsatisfied second-year head coach.
“It was definitely one of our goals,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “But we’re not done yet.”