For the second time in three years, the Minnesota Vikings (11-3) are NFC North champions.
The 34-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) at U.S. Bank Stadium was the Vikings’ most convincing win of the season. With reports coming out prior to the game that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis would be stepping down from his position after 15 seasons with the team, the Bengals appeared disinterested in the game from the beginning. Minnesota built a 17-0 lead after the first quarter that was never threatened. A late interception by Vikings backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (his first game action in 16 months following a catastrophic knee injury) set up the Bengals for their lone score of the game, narrowly avoiding a shutout.
It was a statement game following the team’s first loss in two months. Minnesota now looks poised to at least get a first-round playoff bye week, with matchups against the Green Bay Packers (7-7) and Chicago Bears (4-10) to close out the season. With that said, let’s take a look back at three takeaways from Sunday’s victory.
Week 15 Minnesota Vikings Takeaways
The Stingy Defense Was Stingier Than Ever
A week after allowing two 60-plus yard runs to the Carolina Panthers (10-4), the Vikings showed the league why they still have one of the league’s best defenses. Minnesota prevented a first down in the first quarter, the only team in the league this season to not allow a first down throughout an entire quarter of play. The Bengals finished with only eight first downs throughout the game and were only 1-of-13 on third down conversions and 1-of-3 on fourth down conversions.
And in a lopsided victory like Sunday’s game, the trailing team tends to rack up “garbage” yardage, turning to the air to pick up chunks of yards against a winning team that plays a softer defense. But despite the 27-point margin, Cincinnati finished with only 161 total yards. The defense got to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton three times but was getting consistent pressure on him throughout the game. An interception by Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks was returned 31 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, surprisingly giving the Vikings their first non-offensive touchdown of the season. A spectacular pick in the third quarter by veteran cornerback Terence Newman that would have made LeBron James jealous capped Minnesota’s dominating performance and sent the game into cruise control.
Case Keenum Delivers His Most Efficient Game Yet
Case Keenum also bounced back from a shaky performance in Carolina. The journeyman quarterback who has helped keep Minnesota at the top of the NFC playoff race was 20-of-23 passing for 236 yards and two touchdowns. He also added a 20-yard play on the ground as he broke the pocket on a bootleg. And aside from the first play of the game where he tripped and took a sack, Keenum was kept relatively clean despite left tackle Riley Reiff missing the game with an ankle injury.
For the first time in recent memory, receiver Adam Thielen wasn’t the player Keenum was targeting through the air. Versatile running back Jerick McKinnon took the role Sunday, catching seven passes for 114 yards. It was relatively easy, too, as McKinnon was often making receptions with no defenders around his area. It’s the type of production that the Vikings would love to see going forward as teams are paying for attention to Thielen and receiver Stefon Diggs (who caught one of Keenum’s touchdown passes Sunday) as the playoffs approach.
The Run Game Gets Back on Track
The final element that bounced back after a poor week in Carolina was the Vikings running game. As a team they piled up 124 yards off of 34 runs. Leading the way was running back Latavius Murray, who finished with 78 yards on 20 carries rushing a week after only gaining 14 yards on nine carries. He also punched in the first touchdown of the day on a one-yard plunge to cap off the first drive of the game.
While it wasn’t the prettiest performance of the season (a team average of 3.6 yards per carry), runs were consistently going forward. Keenum’s 20-yard run was the longest carry of the day for the team, so the lower yards per carry was actually more effective than a running game that contained a long run to skew an otherwise mediocre rushing performance. The tough running of Murray delivers the type of “body blows” that can wear down defenses in January.
The Vikings will travel to Green Bay to face the Packers on Saturday night in a game that will mean a lot less than fans expected prior to the season following Green Bay’s 31-24 loss to the Panthers on Sunday.