Vikings take over first place in defensive victory
The Vikings did what they needed to do, not necessarily what they wanted to do, but in the fickle NFL it was all they should hope to get done.
No need to apologize for Sunday's 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at U.S. Bank Stadium. The justification is in the details of another methodical home win that is stockpiling equity and confidence.
The NFC North specifically and the conference in general are so wide open this season that any time Minnesota increases its crooked number in the win column, there should be a celebration no matter how muted the performance.
The perpetually banged-up Vikings are sitting pretty ugly at 5-2 and alone at first place in the division, but what a beautiful view their defense has afforded them. A taxing trans-Atlantic trip to jolly old England and a trap game against the woeful Cleveland Browns stand in their way before the much-needed midseason bye.
They absolutely had to have this one against an inferior opponent, never mind the cosmetics.
"I told the team all week long today was going to be a grind, I knew it was," said coach Mike Zimmer.
Cleaning the gutters would have been more entertaining than investing in this forsaken field-goal fest.
The quagmire was made more unseemly by each team's inability to command much of anything with the football. Film review should be done in grainy black and white to honor the Ragtime play-calling that defined this retrograde snoozer.
Two physical defenses will do that.
Case Keenum should have known he was in for a long afternoon when his first pass of the game was tipped twice by wide receiver Laquon Treadwell into the hands of Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr for a buzz-killing interception.
The Ravens thrive on turnovers. They have 15 this season. It was the cardinal sin. But with the Vikings' Purple Reign defense dominating, any transgression is marginal.
Five sacks and 11 tackles for loss will do that, too. It was enough to make the offense feel guilty.
"It makes you have more of a drive to score because you almost want to score for them to reward them for how well they're playing," said wide receiver Adam Thielen. "That's what you want. You want to play for one another, and when you have guys like that on defense you want to play for them."
Midnight might be approaching for Keenum, who grew pumpkin rinds with an erratic and uncertain showing in his sixth start.
The Vikings need at least one more quality start from the career backup before they can even consider activating rust-encased franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose return to the practice field following a 14-month moratorium gives the team more moving parts than a Swiss watch at this complicated position.
There was a Sam Bradford sighting on the sideline with the recovering signal caller wearing sweats and a forlorn look. At least he is in town and not visiting another orthopedic guru for possible bionic surgery on his balky left knee.
His reappearance was not as imperative as the late arrival of running back Latavius Murray, who rushed for 113 yards and scored the game's only touchdown to finally offer some return on Minnesota's free-agent investment.
Kai Forbath was on the field almost as much as the officials. His six field goals were a career high and larded the winning margin, although nothing was sacred during this sloppy afternoon. Forbath also botched another extra point, which would be forgettable if his act were not so tiresome.
But why nitpick?
Baltimore had no answer for the ravenous Vikings defense, whose routine dominance is dangerously close to becoming rote. Do not take for granted how thoroughly prepared and ferociously executed their game plans have been.
"If we continue to stop the run on defense, are good on third downs, we usually can match up pretty good with most teams," said Zimmer, conceding little. "I still feel like the strength of our defense is being able to rush the quarterback."
Omnipresent linebacker Anthony Barr is sniffing out quarterbacks, running backs and receivers at such a high level his signature should be on the ball instead of Commissioner Roger Goodell's. Barr is oozing confidence and steadily whitewashing his lost 2016 season with reliable production and unmatched intensity, and he already has Aaron Rodgers' pelt on his wall as a keepsake.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, looking like a burned-out husk of the Super Bowl XLVII MVP who torched the 49ers five years ago, was so spooked by Minnesota's pass rush he basically sacked himself in a clean pocket during the first quarter.
The Vikings will go as far as this unit takes them, and right now there are miles of open road ahead with the Packers spiraling downward without Aaron Rodgers and no NFC team distinguishing itself as the standard bearer.
"We can't win the division next week," tight end Kyle Rudolph noted. "We certainly can put ourselves into some trouble. For us it'll be about taking it each and every week and then come the New Year see where we're at."
Asked what it felt like to be 5-2, Zimmer quickly referenced last year's 5-0 collapse to 8-8 as if it were a pox on his soul.
"Right now I feel tired," he said. "We unfortunately know when you're almost halfway through the season (it) doesn't mean anything. We've been there before."
Game notes: Thielen now has five or more receptions in all seven games this season - the only player in the NFL to do so. Thielen leads the Vikings' receiving corp this season with team-highs in receptions (43), yards (529) with a long of 45 yards. He has also carried the ball one time for 11 yards. Thielen has yet to score a touchdown.