Seriously, what happened during the Minnesota Vikings bye week?
Minnesota limped into Week 7 at 1-5 without a game to play or any place to go. COVID protocols required them to shelve the family vacation and stick around the team facility for testing. No chance to unwind in some tropical waters and wash away the stench of their worst start in seven years.
Whatever soul-searching happened during that arduous two-week stretch between a 40-23 loss to Atlanta and a shocking 28-22 win at Lambeau Field — during which the Vikings surely contemplated the makeup of their entire organization — represents one of the most unlikely turning points in recent Vikings history.
The Vikings are 4-5 after Monday’s 19-13 win and would be above .500 if they had simply split a pair of one-point losses against excellent opponents. Nonetheless, the Red Sea is parting as the Vikings stare at a three-game home stretch where they should be decisive favorites in three consecutive weeks. They are halfway to a possible six-game winning streak that would be the second-longest of Mike Zimmer’s tenure, and they’re suddenly showing a toughness that was noticeably lacking in their loss to the Falcons exactly 30 days ago; the official bottom from which the Vikings have climbed back.
“These guys, before the game, they weren’t tight,” Zimmer said late Monday night on a Zoom call. “I could tell in the locker room they weren’t tight. They seem to go out and practice real hard, they seem to respond in practice – one of the things that we’ve been emphasizing a lot in the last few weeks is not allowing completions in practice defensively. Maybe that’s starting to show up, the competition part. It’s three games. We’re fighting our way back into this thing hopefully.”
Some odd mistakes and decisions marred what might’ve been a blowout of the Chicago Bears. Adam Thielen‘s drop-turned-interception represented a likely six- or 10-point swing before halftime as the Bears converted a field goal and the Vikings strangely didn’t try to score with 49 seconds and two timeouts in their back pocket. Then Cordarrelle Patterson‘s kickoff return to start the second half gave Chicago a lead they in no way deserved, one of far-too-many Vikings special teams blunders that kept the Bears afloat. These developments might’ve daggered the Vikings’ hopes in most years at Soldier Field, especially the mentally-fragile team of one month prior. But Minnesota played turnover-free ball in the second half, scored on three of four possessions over a critical stretch between the third and fourth quarters and didn’t let the Bears threaten to win the game at the wire.
Defensively, the Vikings held Chicago to 149 yards, just the 10th time a defense has held an opponent under 150 yards in the past decade. Their injury-demolished secondary has defaulted to a trio of corners that, whether by fluke or by design, play with passion, confidence and proper technique. And their starless defensive line has delivered three straight workmanlike performances with stout run-stopping and disciplined pass rush — all without their statistically-strongest piece Yannick Ngakoue, whose trade now feels like an addition-by-subtraction move.
Remember that Falcons game where it was 20-0 at halftime? Atlanta scored 17 points off three Vikings turnovers. Monday night the Vikings turned it over twice in the first half, but the defense did what it hadn’t done early in the season: It bailed out the offense.
Remember that Seahawks game when Russell Wilson drove the field with no timeouts to win it? Yeah, wasn’t going to happen Monday with Nick Foles or backup Tyler Bray, who had to take over after Foles was hurt one play into the Bears’ final drive. Chicago only had one red zone trip on the night during what was probably the scripted portion of new playcaller Bill Lazor’s gameplan.
During their three-game divisional winning streak, the Vikings defense is responsible for allowing just 22 at Green Bay, 20 against Detroit (seven of those essentially because of a blocked punt) and six against the Bears.
“I would say the intangible is literally just the energy that we decide to bring before we show up to whatever stadium it is,” Smith said after the game. “I think it’s a goofy year for everybody, and we’re starting to have a little bit of a feeling about how to make our own energy and our own confidence, so I think we’re starting to figure it out a little bit.”
Monday’s game was physical, old-school and riddled with smack talk. Who says fan-less sporting events don’t have intensity? Dalvin Cook and Akiem Hicks were jawing within moments of Minnesota’s first offensive possession. Rookie Justin Jefferson mixed it up with the Bears secondary (“chitter chatter,” he called it). The Vikings defense rallied boisterously around big plays by breakout emotional leaders like Hercules Mata’afa and Kris Boyd — imagine reading that sentence back in August.
Kirk Cousins, whose future in Minnesota was seriously jeopardized by the 1-5 start, let loose after a 2nd and 6 completion to Rudolph inside of two minutes. He headbutted Tyler Conklin, headbutted Rudolph, pumped his fists, and who knows, maybe dropped a “YOU LIKE THAT?” in there somewhere.
“There was a lot of chatter,” Cousins said. “It was all in good fun, but certainly it was satisfying to feel like we were able to get that first down.”
Cousins, and the Vikings, were the more talented team on Monday, but they withstood the obstacles that would’ve tripped them up in September or October. They shook off uncharacteristic mistakes. They matched the intensity of a desperate team. They battled back from a second-half deficit. They didn’t falter in the fourth quarter.
“I just think as the season goes on you start to figure out who you are and how you play and who you lean on,” Cousins said, “and I think it’s been nice to kind of figure ourselves out, find an identity as we play through things. So, I like that part of it. Just like I said at the bye week when we had 10 games left, these 10 games are going to tell the story. Even after three wins, I’d still say the same going forward. It feels like the next one or the next three are really going to tell the story.”