Doug Wolter: Everything's falling in place for the Vikings, so what's the problem?
Fate seems to favor the Minnesota Vikings this year. It’s as if Nature itself has conspired to clear the decks of all opposition as the NFC Central champions begin their drive toward the Super Bowl.
But can it be too perfect to be true? Vikings fans, who are numbingly familiar with having their dreams dashed to smithereens at the very height of expectation, have got to be worried right now.
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking. How many times have we gone down this road?” said Andy Johnson, executive director and CEO of the Worthington Area YMCA and a die-hard Vikings rooter.
He especially remembers the 1998 NFC title game against the Atlanta Falcons, which involved arguably the best Vikings team ever. Kicker Gary Anderson’s inexplicable miss of a very makeable field goal which would have secured a victory and sent the team to the Super Bowl still haunts. The miss, by a kicker who was 35-for-35 on field goals in the regular season, gave the Falcons another chance. And they took it.
“I’ll never forget when that field goal was missed. I sat on the floor and I didn’t move for an hour,” said Johnson.
There are many other bad memories, of course. The older fans among us never want to hear the name Drew Pearson. Then there were the Super Bowls themselves. Four of them. The Vikings lost them all.
Not all Vikings fans are worried, however. Super fan Joyce Soderholm, of Worthington, bleeds purple. And she insists everything is going to work out this year as her team tries to become the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium.
“I’ve just got this feeling,” she said this week. “I just think that these guys have wanted it so long, they just believe in themselves. This is our year!”Made to order?
Regardless of the fans’ level of confidence, there’s no denying that everything -- up to this point -- has gone the Vikings’ way this season. Illogically so.
They were very disappointing last season, with a defense that dropped off considerably after a dominating start and an offensive line that was historically awful. They came into 2017 with a revamped offensive line that no one had reason to believe could be as steady as it has been this fall and winter.
Their starting quarterback, the accurate but delicate Sam Bradford, succumbed to knee issues after the first regular season game. With their other talented QB, Teddy Bridgewater, still recovering from a major injury, they had no choice but to put their third-string guy, Case Keenum, under center.
As it turns out, Keenum is more than a fill-in. He’s arguably the most talented quarterback the Vikings have under contract. Who would’ve thought?
Their No. 1 draft pick, running back Dalvin Cook, was outstanding early. But he, too, went down to injury. Lost for the season, it was roundly assumed that his understudy, Latavius Murray, who was underwhelming in exhibition games, would not be able to revive what had been a terrible Minnesota running game the year before. Wrong again.
The Vikings today are 13-3, thanks in part to a relatively weak schedule that has included such non-division cream puffs as Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and division rivals Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit for two games each. The Vikings, themselves, eliminated the Packers from the land of the competitive in Week 6 when they afflicted a season-ending injury on All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers. As for the Bears, they were just terrible all year. As for the Lions, they have once again reverted to the mediocrity they are famous for.
When the Lions are your only serious competition in the NFC Central, you know you’ve got it made.
Fate, in fact, may be conspiring in the Vikings’ favor for the playoffs, too. The team with the best shot at knocking off the Purple Gang, Philadelphia, lost its outstanding quarterback, Carson Wentz, a few weeks ago and will be much easier to beat with his replacement, Nick Foles, under center.Next up: Saints
But don’t get me wrong. The Vikings are not responsible for the competition they face. And if you dismiss them by calling them lucky, you are missing the whole point. Yes, the almost instantaneous turnaround from a lousy offensive line to a good one is baffling, but the Vikings themselves deserve all the credit. Same, too, for their ability to overcome the loss of Bradford and Cook. Their defense remains outstanding, and there’s nothing surprising about that.
The Vikings play their first playoff game on Sunday at home against the New Orleans Saints and their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Drew Brees. Nearly 39 now, Brees has enjoyed another outstanding season, and there are those who believe his experience may be the trump card the Saints possess against the Vikings.
I’m not buying it, frankly. The Vikings’ defense can make any quarterback look pedestrian, and Sunday’s game is at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The home field adds at least three points to the Vikings’ score, and the fans there will be as loud as they’ve ever been.
The Saints, of course, beat the Vikings in the NFC title game in 2009 on a day that the fans surely remember. It was the game that Vikings fans recall as the game the Saints targeted their quarterback, Brett Favre, for injury and bounced him around like a ragdoll throughout -- often after the whistle.
Vikings players say there will be no revenge on their minds this year; that all they want is to advance in the playoffs. Fans, though, will still remember. And even though it’s eight years after the fact, they’ll be rabid. Their attitude will add somewhat, I think, to the problems the Saints will face.
Still, nothing is certain in the NFL. It never is. Ironically, perhaps the most confident Vikings fan of them all, Joyce Soderholm, worries most over -- not the Saints, not the Eagles -- but the refs.
If they mess up a call that costs the Vikings a Super Bowl bid, it would be devastating, of course.
But (and millions of other Vikes fans can probably agree) it wouldn’t be particularly surprising.