Many questions surrounded the Minnesota Vikings heading into the 2017 NFL season. Coming off of a disappointing 8-8 season in 2016, expectations were all over the board. Following a solid but unspectacular off-season, the team did nothing special in the preseason to answer off-season questions. Preseason predictions ranged from a return to the playoffs to a 4-12 disaster.
The team, led by fourth-year coach Mike Zimmer, answered every call, though. The team finished 13-3, gaining the second seed in the NFC while answering every question fans had heading into the year. The defense was exceptional, finishing with the top-ranked unit in total points allowed, yards allowed, and third-down defense. For the first time in Zimmer’s tenure, the offense, led by journeyman quarterback Case Keenum, carried its own weight, ranking 11th in total yards.
It wasn’t always the prettiest result, but the Vikings took on the personality of their head coach in 2017, putting them in good position to be the first team in NFL history to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium. Let’s look at four moments that shaped the 2017 Minnesota Vikings season.
Four 2017 Minnesota Vikings Defining Moments
Bradford Carves Up the Saints Opening Night
Way back in week one, the New Orleans Saints came into U.S. Bank Stadium hoping to kick off a season which would snap a three-year playoff drought. Like the Vikings, they spent the off-season trying to patch up holes that had plagued them a year ago. Unlike the Vikings, their newcomers took a little longer to make an impact.
Longtime Vikings running back Adrian Peterson left Minnesota following the 2016 after spending his first 10 seasons with the organization. He signed with the Saints, hoping to improve a run game that hasn’t taken enough pressure off of future-Hall-of-Fame-quarterback Drew Brees. Opening night foreshadowed his short stint with the team, carrying the ball six times for 18 yards, highlighting a lackluster running night from the Saints who finished with only 60 yards on the ground.
But while Peterson highlighted the pre-game story lines, it was quarterback Sam Bradford who dominated the post-game coverage. He finished the game 27-of-32 passing for 346 yards and three touchdowns, completing passes to seven different receivers and taking only one sack a year after a poor offensive line limited the Vikings aerial attack. This gave the team hope that they had an offense that could finally pull its own weight to go along with an already stout defense.
Ironically, a year after taking hits all season long, it was this game that Bradford walked away banged up. His previously-torn knee was re-aggravated during the game, leading to the team moving to Keenum to take the reins for all but one game the rest of the season. It appeared that a team plagued by injuries in 2016 was going to suffer the same fate a year later.
Keenum Steps in to Help the Vikings Escape Soldier Field
The one game that Bradford returned from was a Monday night road game against the Chicago Bears in early October. A house of horrors for the Vikings the past two decades, Minnesota went into Soldier Field with a 2-2 record. They had just lost promising rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL the week before in a 14-7 loss against the Detroit Lions that looked all too similar to last season’s collapse. Another promising season looked destined to fall to the wayside as Bradford was very uncomfortable in an ugly two of three first half. He finished five of 11 for 36 yards while taking four sacks.
Keenum came in to relieve Bradford, completing 17-of-21 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph that led to one of the best touchdown celebrations of the NFL season. The Vikings offense found life, and with 2:32 left in a 17-17 game, Bears rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw an interception to Vikings All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. Kicker Kai Forbath kicked a 26-yard game-winning field goal to send the Vikings home with an ugly yet important 20-17 victory. Although a 2-3 record wouldn’t have ended Minnesota’s season, a two-game skid against division opponents could have sent the team into another mid-season tailspin.
Nobody would have guessed it after the Bears game, but the win sparked a five-game winning streak heading into a mid-season showdown with the Los Angeles Rams. The teams entered with identical 7-2 records. The Rams had a young head coach in Sean McVay who had taken the league’s worst-scoring offense and made it the league’s highest-scoring in just one season. Second-year quarterback Jared Goff had shaken the “bust” label and was gaining MVP hype along with third-year running back Todd Gurley. And longtime defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had the Rams defense playing tough football on the other side.
The Rams marched right down the field on the opening drive of the game. Minnesota fans were stunned inside U.S. Bank Stadium as the Rams took an early 7-0 lead. It was the sort of game that the team had faltered in during previous years. But as the Vikings had done all season, they didn’t blink. Led by Latavius Murray and his 95 yards and two touchdown runs, Minnesota picked up 171 yards on the ground. Keenum was efficient again, going 27-of-38 for 280 yards passing and a 65-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen early in the fourth quarter that broke a 7-7 tie.
Minnesota walked away with a 24-7 victory that changed the expectations of the team. Suddenly, local and national pundits began considering the Vikings as a legitimate Super Bowl team. The team was firing on offense and an already tough defense was beginning to suffocate opponents.
Securing the Bye Week
The Vikings would beat the Lions on Thanksgiving Day and the Atlanta Falcons a week later to stretch their winning streak to eight games. A hiccup against the Carolina Panthers ended the streak but helped the team regain focus with three games left in the season and a chance to secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs. The second seed, while not enough to get home-field advantage, would still give the Vikings a bye week.
After dismantling the Cincinnati Bengals at home and shutting out the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, the Vikings finished the season against the team that could have turned their special season sour in October. The Bears were 5-10 and head coach John Fox was expected to be fired after the game. The Vikings were 12-3 and a win away from the NFC’s second seed.
While many thought that Minnesota might potentially be overlooking the Bears, the Vikings jumped out to an early 14-0 lead. The game became stagnant after that, though, as Minnesota became much more conservative. With their talented roster, getting out of the game as healthy as possible was paramount. The Vikings still out-gained the Bears 327-201 in offensive yards and the only touchdown the Bears got was off a fluky-yet-brilliant-fake-punt return that fooled everyone in the stadium.
Minnesota emerged victorious 23-10, locking up the second seed and staying relatively healthy during the course of the season after Bradford and Cook’s injuries early on.
Following a 31-26 victory over the Panthers on Sunday, the Saints will travel to Minnesota next Sunday afternoon in a rematch of a week one match-up that didn’t make a blip on the NFL radar. Zimmer and the defense will have their work cut out against the high-powered Saints offense. If the game plays out like the previous 16 have, however, they will not blink and will take care of business, hoping to set up two more games in U.S. Bank Stadium to end the 2017 season.