A year ago, the Vikings left Washington a reeling mess of a team.
A six-point loss to the Redskins marked their fourth consecutive defeat coming out of the bye. That skid would hit eight losses in 10 games before a meaningless victory over the Chicago Bears ended a tumultuous season.
Those Vikings had taken a 5-0 record into the bye, but a 21-10 loss at Philadelphia led to an angry Mike Zimmer expressing his frustration at his postgame press conference and seemed to set off a chain reaction that a week later led to offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s sudden resignation.
Given that turn of events – going from a perfect start to losing eight of their final 11 games – there was a curiosity to see how the Vikings did in their first game back from the bye this time around.
From an outsiders perspective it looked a whole lot smoother. Returning to FedExField a day shy of exactly one year later, the Vikings gave up an early touchdown and a season-high 30 points but still came away with a 38-30 victory to improve to 7-2 and keep a two-game lead over Detroit and Green Bay (both 5-4) in the NFC North.
The Vikings have won five in a row since opening 2-2.
Sunday’s win was impressive for a variety of reasons, beginning with the fact that the Vikings’ 38 points marked a season-high and produced a brilliant first half from quarterback Case Keenum. The backup-turned-starter completed 11 of 14 throws for 188 yards with three touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
What should have been the most heartening thing for the Vikings faithful was this was the exact type of game the Vikings would have lost at this time last year. Playing without Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen (foot injury) was a definite blow but this team overcame that loss. Last year, that likely wouldn’t have been the case.
Keenum, who seems to have one good half in him per week, ran into trouble with the Vikings leading by 15 points in the third quarter. On third-and-8 from the Washington 39-yard line, Keenum made an inexplicable throw off his back foot in which he lofted the ball for tight end Kyle Rudolph. This despite the fact that running back Jerick McKinnon and wide receiver Adam Thielen were both open. Rudolph, on the other hand, was surrounded by four Washington players.
It was no surprise that safety D.J. Swearinger took the opportunity to intercept the pass. Washington’s ensuing drive ended on a fourth-down incompletion by Kirk Cousins at the Vikings 32, but Keenum’s next pass, on the first play of the fourth quarter, was telegraphed for Rudolph and again intercepted by Swearinger. This time Swearinger returned the pick 31 yards to the Vikings’ 2 before being forced out of bounds by Keenum.
Washington scored a touchdown two plays later and suddenly the Vikings’ lead was down to eight points.
A year ago, this would have caused chaos and doubt and ultimately an unsightly and unforgiveable loss by a team that seemed to lose faith in its coach and itself.
The Vikings got the ball back, drove down the field and Kai Forbath nailed a 53-yard field goal against his former team to again make it a two-score game.
This is not to say this Vikings team is perfect. Keenum has done a very nice job, for the most part, but it’s clear that Teddy Bridgewater’s activation to the 53-man roster this past week will be followed by him playing quarterback for this team sooner rather than later.
What appears to be different is this is a far deeper Vikings team that is being led by a coach who has learned from his mistakes of a year ago and is no longer in jeopardy of losing his players’ faith.
The Vikings will get another chance to prove just how different they are next Sunday.
When the NFL released its regular-season schedule last spring, many of us looked at the Vikings-Rams matchup on Nov. 19 at U.S. Bank Stadium and rolled our eyes.
The Rams were terrible in 2016, finishing 4-12, and few knew what to make of first-overall pick Jared Goff. But under 31-year-old first-year head coach Sean McVay, Goff often has looked very good and the Rams’ 33-7 victory over Houston on Sunday put them at 7-2, atop the NFC West.
The Vikings, meanwhile, have gone from one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments in 2016 to one of the best teams in their conference this season.
The Rams game will be important because it will give the Vikings a chance to judge themselves against one of the NFC’s best. It also will be key because, after that, four of the team’s final six games will be on the road, including three in a row against Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina.
Zimmer can only hope the Vikings’ pass those tests as well as they passed the one they faced on Sunday.