You could feel the apprehension begin to set in almost as soon as the New Orleans Saints beat Carolina on Sunday.
It’s not that Vikings fans don’t want to exude the confidence of Patriots fans. It’s not that Vikings fans are eager to be thinking about field-goal attempts sailing wide left or seeing their quarterback throw an interception at a crucial moment. But it’s impossible to purge these thoughts from one’s mind when that’s all you’ve known for so many years.
Gary Anderson’s missed field goal stands out as the moment that caused the magical 1998 season to crash and burn only one game from the Super Bowl. Brett Favre’s forced pass into the middle of the field, and the unforgivable 12-men in the huddle penalty right before, are among the toughest memories from the 2009 NFC title game loss in New Orleans. Blair Walsh’s miss wide left in 2015 isn’t quite as painful, considering it came in a first-round playoff game, but that moment served as a painful reminder of past postseason failures.
So it makes sense that Vikings fans are uptight this week. Coach Mike Zimmer guided this team to a 13-3 record, the second-most victories in a single season in franchise history, but now comes the tough part. Getting past both the real and mental hurdles, beginning with Minnesota’s game against the Saints on Sunday in the NFC Divisional playoffs at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Allow me to offer this positive spin on matters — and no, this is not a joke. I’m being sincere.
This Vikings team is unlike any we’ve seen in many, many years and if you’re a fan whose loyalty dates to the beginning of the Randy Moss era, and thus the 1998 season, this team is very different than the one that has broken your heart on at least two occasions.
The 1998 and 2009 Vikings had solid defenses but those teams were built around offense.
This was especially true in 1998, when Denny Green’s team scored a then-NFL record 556 points with Randall Cunningham, Cris Carter, Moss and others leading the way. The Vikings were second in total offense that season and first in passing. The defense finished 13th in yards given up but were only 19th against the pass.
In 2009, Vikings were able to recruit Brett Favre to come play for them and the old gunslinger put together an MVP-type season in leading the Vikings to the No. 5 ranking in the NFL in total offense. The Vikings actually finished sixth in total defense that season, in large part because the outstanding run defense ranked second in the league. But there was never any question that team would go as Favre went and when Tracy Porter picked off Favre’s pass late in regulation, forcing an overtime in which the Saints would win, Minnesota’s season was sunk.
The Zimmer-led 2015 Vikings were more comparable to this team, but this is a more mature and well-crafted group of players who rely on a defense that makes life miserable on opponents.
I’m not old enough to remember the Vikings’ great Purple People Eaters defenses of the late 1960s and into the ’70s, but what Zimmer has put together this season is the best and most complete Vikings defense many of us have seen.
Led by Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, the Vikings were No. 1 in the NFL in total and scoring defense and No. 2 in passing and rushing yards against.
This assures the Vikings of nothing in the playoffs, especially if the path to a Super Bowl championship includes having to beat New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New England’s Tom Brady. But there is a bit more comfort in knowing the Vikings have a coach who is considered one of the NFL’s best defensive minds and is going to have as good of chance as anyone, especially when you consider his personnel, to slow even upper-echelon quarterbacks.
This isn’t to say the Vikings don’t have a good offense. Coordinator Pat Shurmur has done such a good job that it appears he will be named an NFL head coach at some point soon. The Vikings finished 11th in total offense and 10th in scoring offense.
Career backup Case Keenum stepped in for the injured Sam Bradford one game into the season and has proven to be a godsend who is headed for a big payday. Keenum’s success has been due in part to strong running back and wide receiver duos and a much-improved offensive line.
The Vikings will need that offense to be productive and mistake free on Sunday. They also will need Keenum and Co., to possess the ball for enough time so as to keep the defense fresh.
But they won’t be relied upon to win the game for these Vikings. That task will fall to what has proven to be a dominant defense.
Vikings’ fans should take comfort in knowing that’s the case.