MINNEAPOLIS - What a difference three weeks, and three wins against NFC North Division opponents makes for the Minnesota Vikings.
Three weeks ago, the Vikings were doing plenty of looking in the mirror at themselves. They were 1-5, at the bottom of the NFC North and one of the worst teams in the NFL. Amid speculation of trades and with potentially jobs on the line, Mike Zimmer had a simple message for his team: Stick together.
They listened, and so far, it’s worked. The Vikings’ 19-13 win at Chicago on Monday Night Football was Zimmer’s third with the Vikings. It was the franchise’s fourth since 2000. For at least another week, the Vikings have something to fight for.
“That took us farther than he thinks, just us sticking with each other, knowing the type of team we can be, just pushing each other and I think that’s what got us over that hump. Just pushing each other and knowing what type of team we can be,” said Dalvin Cook, who leads the NFL in rushing yards (954) and rushing touchdowns (12).
They’ve won three straight and climbed out of the early hole with Zimmer’s ideal formula: Run the ball, win the line of scrimmage and play sound defense.
Cook ran for 163 yards and had more than 200 total yards and three touchdowns in the Vikings’ 28-22 win at Green Bay. He ran for a career-high 206 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions. Monday night, he ran for 57 of his 96 yards against the Bears after Akiem Hicks left the game with a bad hamstring.
Kirk Cousins stepped up on the big stage, going 25-of-36 for 292 yards and two scores. With Chicago committed to containing Cook, it was Cousins’ time lead the Vikings, and get his first win on Monday Night Football. He’s been nearly mistake-free in the last three games. After 10 interceptions, including three against the Falcons before the bye week, Cousins has one in his last three games. It was actually bobbled by Adam Thielen, and not Cousins’ fault.
While they feel good about winning three straight as the Dallas Cowboys come to town, they’re still 4-5.
“We’re not 7-2, we’re not leading our division. I don’t feel a sense that our season is turned around. I feel like we’ve done some good things the last few weeks, but I feel like we have a lot of work up ahead to get to where we really want to go,” Cousins said.
He’s right, but with a win over the Cowboys on Sunday, the Vikings can get to .500 for the first time all season. In a year with COVID-19, empty stadiums and weekly uncertainty, they’ll take any positive they can get.
They’ve got one of the best running backs in the NFL, Cousins is getting better after a slow start and a beat up defense is getting better with time. Monday night, the Vikings limited the Bears to 149 total yards, sacked Nick Foles twice and never let the Bears feel comfortable.
They made plays against Aaron Rodgers to leave Lambeau Field with a victory, and did enough to contain Matthew Stafford. Zimmer has pressed the right buttons since a 1-5 start, and plenty of self-evaluating. There’s life again in the Vikings’ season.
“It’s taken a little while to understand that we have to bring our own energy, we have to bring our own excitement. We have to play well. We keep talking about it each and every week,” Zimmer said. “The biggest thing is playing with emotion and energy.”
What lies ahead is a big opportunity for the Vikings. Three straight home games, starting with the Cowboys on Sunday. A chance to get to 7-5 over the next three weeks, and give themselves a chance at the playoffs. Only three teams since 1970 have made the playoffs after a 1-5 start: the 2018 Indianapolis Colts, the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs and the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals.
The Vikings could become the fourth, but they’re not currently thinking that way. At least not yet.
“We’re so focused right now of just handling our business week in and week out. We know how difficult it is to win in this league, no matter who you’re playing, no matter what the record is, no matter what time in the season it is. Whatever the playoff implications are, it doesn’t matter,” said Thielen, who is tied for the NFL lead with nine receiving touchdowns.
It doesn’t matter yet, but the Vikings hope it does in three weeks.