By: Zach Strauch
In front of an overflow crowd at the newly-built U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Monday night, the Vikings trotted to the home sideline. The visiting New York Giants, who had just suffered a crippling home loss to the Redskins the previous week, maneuvered to the visitor’s side.
No Teddy Bridgewater. No Adrian Peterson. Still, even despite the two absences, the Vikings sat atop the tumultuous NFC North at 4-0. Two convincing wins against the Packers and Panthers, respectively, added evidence to the opinion that Minnesota was exceeding expectations.
Sam Bradford was finally paying dividends for a team, and he continued to yield quality play against an above-average Giants defense. One touchdown, no interceptions and 262 yards passing was paired with a stout defensive showing and a calculated performance from Jerrick McKinnon, Peterson’s replacement in the backfield, to produce another victory for the Vikings, who play host to Houston on Sunday.
Why has Minnesota been impenetrable in the early going? It hasn’t been a soft schedule. It definitely can’t be credited to good health. It’s probably not the new home in the Twin Cities, although that could be part of it. What, then, could it be?
First, Mike Zimmer, who’s in his third season as Minnesota’s head coach, has excelled in working alongside General Manager Rick Spielman to build a safety net into the Vikings. When Peterson was injured in the third quarter of the team’s inaugural home victory over Green Bay in Week 2, McKinnon and Matt Asiata, who both scored rushing touchdowns in Monday’s victory over New York, were ready to step in. When Bridgewater was lost before the season started, Shaun Hill was able to learn the ropes and lead the Vikings to a road victory over Tennessee in the opening week of the campaign. And the subsequent transition to Bradford has been seamless to this point.
Second, the gravitas possessed by and the tirelessness of Spielman, who traded several hours of sleep, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick to Philadelphia for Bradford in early September, have been invaluable. Being friends with Howie Roseman, general manager for the Eagles, hasn’t failed him either. And so far, the last-minute deal has worked for both teams. Neither has lost a game, and Philadelphia has likely found its quarterback of the future in Carson Wentz.
And third, the tough, gritty and unwavering defensive unit for Minnesota is performing at an unprecedented level. The Vikings are second only to Denver in sacks with a staggering 15 through the first quarter of the season. And they rank eighth in team defense, allowing 306 yards per game.
Does all of this make the Vikings the best team in the NFC?
If they stay healthy, potentially. But that’s a massive “if.”
Bradford’s health specifically has been a substantial liability throughout his seven-year career, especially in his rocky St. Louis days. His left ACL has been injured twice, causing him to miss a significant portion of the 2013 season and all of 2014. A concussion and left shoulder injury hindered him in 2015, forcing him to miss two critical games for Philadelphia.
And losing Peterson, a seven-time Pro Bowler, former MVP and three-time NFL rushing yards leader, has already set the Vikings back. He has been an integral part of Minnesota’s offense for years, and he was centrifuge to last season’s division title run.
But so far, Minnesota has done a masterful job of recovering.
And they’re more than capable of building on their early triumphs.
With the Eagles, Falcons and Rams also off to scorching starts, the Vikings will have to keep pace if they hope to maintain a top slot in the NFC playoff picture. And Aaron Rodgers and the Packers can’t be ignored.
Make no mistake, though. The Vikings will go as far as Sam Bradford takes them. If he’s still standing after Minnesota’s final game of the season, a Jan. 1 home date with Chicago, expect the rest of his team to be right there with him.
Some of the first words he spoke to Spielman after arriving at team headquarters were, “I’ve got to get to work.”
Truer words have never been spoken. He has a long workday ahead.
(Featured Image: Rockin’ Rita, Flickr)