by Patrick P. Marek
If it’s true that revenge is a dish best served cold, then the Vikings must have relished smashing a giant slushball into the forehead of the coach and team that inflicted a brain-freezing 41-donut defeat to Minnesota in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Giants Coach Tom Coughlin loves to run it up and rub it in when he gets a chance to humiliate a team. Sunday he got a taste of his own medicine in front of a nationwide Sunday Night Football audience. Minnesota creamed the Giants 49-17 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Now the Vikings face the Packers in another “flexed” Sunday night game at Lambeau Field for a chance at their first division title since 2009.
The Giants came in to the game with the double whammy of having to deal with the suspension of Odell “Public Relations Enemy #1” Beckham Jr., their only legitimate vertical receiving threat, and the fact that the team learned on Saturday that any hopes for a postseason berth were dashed. To add insult to injury the temperature at game time at TCF stadium was a frosty 13 degrees (2 degree windchill) when the Giants got off the bus.
How cold was it? The Vikings’ cheerleaders featured modest sweaters, while the fashionable attire for the 55,425 well fortified fans who braved the final regular season game at TCF Stadium was snowmobile suits, electric socks, and hand warmers. By the end of the game Tom Coughlin and Mike Zimmer’s faces were more chapped than a spaghetti western. The reporters in the indoor pressbox wore winter coats and chugged hot coffee as they scribbled their notes, made wry comments and updated their Twitter accounts. Legend has it that when four Winona Catholic priests who were given tickets for seats on the 50-yard line sprinkled holy water during the game in an attempt to give the Vikings an advantage, it froze before it hit the ground. By the end of the game “Skol Vikings” had some additional percussion from the chattering teeth of the fans.
The Vikings had everything to play for. They were coming off a dominating victory against the Chicago Bears on the TCF turf the week before, and had three key members of the defense: Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, and Harrison Smith healthy and back on the field. When Seattle and previously unbeaten Carolina suffered upset defeats earlier in the day, the Vikings were going to have to beat the Giants to earn a playoff berth and chance to play the Packers for the division title. Previous Minnesota teams would have defied the odds and played down to the competition. Those teams were not coached by Mike Zimmer.
The Vikings’ defense held the Giants to only 112 yards of offense in the first half, sacking Eli Manning three times, and picking off two of his passes.
One of those interceptions was returned for a game changing touchdown by Harrison Smith. It was Smith’s fourth career defensive touchdown, and earned him a place in the Vikings’ record books. Eli Manning might have two Super Bowl rings, but the Vikings definitely have his number. Smith’s interception was the sixth time that a Vikings’ defender has picked off Manning for a touchdown. That’s a dubious NFL record for a quarterback against an individual team. Minnesota’s defensive front did a great job of clogging up the middle against the run and keeping Manning uncomfortable. Tom Johnson slammed the Giants quarterback to the turf twice, and rookie defensive end Daniele Hunter streaked in and blasted Manning for a drive-stopping sack on third down. Hunter only had three sacks in his entire college career, and was considered a stretch when Minnesota picked him in the third round of the draft, but he has responded to Zimmer’s coaching and defensive scheme with six sacks in his first professional season. Xavier Rhodes has become the shutdown cornerback the Vikings have coveted for years. In one of the few times he was challenged, he batted a pass that was intended for Hakeem Nicks that was intercepted by Andrew Sendejo for the game’s first turnover.
This is arguably the best defense that Minnesota has fielded since Alan Page’s “Purple People Eaters.” They are fast, young, powerful, deceptive, and increasingly confident. It is very evident that they have totally bought into what Zimmer is selling. They are definitely going to be a handful for an increasingly vulnerable and decimated Green offensive line next week. The Vikings are every bit as good, and perhaps better than the Cardinals’ defensive line that battered Rodgers for eight sacks and countless hits last week. If Rodgers is smart he’ll stock up on aspirin and book some time in the ice tub. He’s going to need it.
The offense started slowly and proceeded with caution in the frigid temperatures. Apparently the Giants got the memo from the NFL and stacked the line against Adrian Peterson, daring “Tropical” Teddy Bridgewater to throw. Peterson was held to minimal gains and the offense sputtered until Bridgewater launched a 28-yard touchdown strike to tight end Kyle Rudolph. The beautiful touch pass was just the second scoring toss of more than 20 yards this year. Bridgewater once again played a mistake-free game, and kept the Giants off balance with a variety of short screens and slants, while mixing in an occasional play action downfield pass. The offensive line held up well, despite offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s obsession with the seven step drop.
Blair Walsh continued to confound, bouncing an extra point off the goal post and then converting five field goals in the game. Two of the field goals came from over 50 yards, despite reports that the footballs were so hard that it was like hitting a brick. The Giants’ kickers and Vikings’ punter Jeff Locke all had difficulty dealing with the frozen balls, but Walsh didn’t seem to be affected. He even managed to get a few touchbacks on kickoffs. Next week against the Packers, watch where Walsh lines up on extra points. While he lines up with the middle of the goal post when he boots a field goal, they have him set up with the left post when he kicks an extra point. Could this be why every extra point this year has been an adventure?
There has been a lot of speculation that the Vikings would be better off losing to the Packers next week so that they can face the Redskins at Washington instead of hosting Seattle at TCF Field. I disagree. The Vikings need to go into Lambeau Field, grab the NFC North Title, and give the fans one last game at TCF Stadium. Let’s see how the Seahawks play in arctic temperatures, and let’s begin a new tradition of Green Bay domination. With a little luck, Minnesota has a chance to go deep into the playoffs. No matter what … they are going to be the team nobody is going to want to face.