The Minnesota Vikings were supposed to be in the tank by now. They lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford after just one start. Rookie running back Dalvin Cook tore his ACL three weeks later. With Teddy Bridgewater still on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, the Vikings only had career journeyman Case Keenum to man football’s most important position for a Vikings team trying to bounce back from a disappointing 2016. That was the picture after the first four weeks of this season.
Move ahead to 13 weeks later. The Vikings are division champions for the second time in three years and focused on the race for homefield advantage. They’ve withstood a difficult five-week stretch in which they played four road games and came out with four wins. Their only loss was to the Carolina Panthers in a game that came down to the final possession.
It’s time to tell it how it is: the Minnesota Vikings are the best team in the NFC. They have proven it all season, and particularly over the past six weeks. For those who are in doubt, let’s look at the reasons.
Strength of Competition
One of the signs that many use to declare a team a championship contender is how they play versus other playoff-contending teams. The Vikings check the box in this category.
They have wins over two of three current NFC division leaders; the Saints and the Rams. The Vikings have also won on the road against the defending NFC champion Falcons. Atlanta, by the way, is just a victory away from clinching the final wild card spot. The Vikings also beat the Baltimore Ravens in week seven, another team in their conference’s wild card race. Against teams over .500, the Vikings are 5-3.
Minnesota could potentially be facing a playoff field of three teams they beat during the regular season. Although win-loss records go out the window, the team who has a victory in a previous meeting arguably has a mental edge going into a rematch. That could be a factor for the Vikings, especially if they get all of their playoff games at home.
Health and Depth
Like any team in the NFL, the Vikings have dealt with their fair share of injuries this season. Fortunately, unlike last season, the Vikings have not been hit nearly as hard and have overcome the few that they have had.
They were already setup at running back when they signed Latavius Murray in free agency back in March. Most originally projected him to be the starter before the team altered course and drafted Cook back in April. Between Murray and Jerrick McKinnon, the Vikings running game is ranked ninth in the NFL.
Quarterback has been the biggest shocker of all, and it has been to the Vikings’ benefit. Everyone expected Bradford to occupy this position if the Vikings managed to get this far. But as luck would have it, his history of injuries once again became a factor. Since opening week, he’s only played one half of football due to continued issues with his surgically repaired knee.
Enter Keenum. Most set the expectation of him just simply keeping the team afloat until either Bradford or Bridgewater returned. Someone forgot to tell Keenum that because all he has done is go 9-3 as the starter.Plus, he finished and won the game in Chicago where Bradford tried but failed to play through injury. Keenum has thrown 20 touchdowns against seven interceptions and completed 67.9 percent of his passes, all career-highs. His play in November earned him the NFC Player of the Month, and has kept a now healthy Bridgewater on the sidelines.
The Vikings have endured other minor injuries to other players, but thanks to the added depth, the team has continued to roll forward without missing a beat.
Balance on Both Sides of the Ball
What we have seen this season has been remarkable. The Vikings have treated their supporters to a very balanced team that can put up points and also keep them off the board.
The defense can simply shut down opponents or beat them with big plays when needed. They are second in the league in both total defense and fewest points allowed, having done so against some of the best offenses in football. The Saints, Rams and Falcons each have offenses capable of producing points. Yet when each of them played the Vikings this season, they combined for just two total touchdowns between them. One of those touchdowns came after the outcome had already been decided. Any way you look at it, this is the best defense in the NFC, maybe the entire NFL.
Offensively, the Vikings are in the top-10 in both passing and rushing. They have also been much better in red zone efficiency, particularly late in the season. It has led to much better scoring production. Minnesota has also proven to be up to the task in critical situations as they are in the top-three on both sides of the ball on third down: first on defense and third on offense. The Philadelphia Eagles are the only other team in the league even in the top five in both categories. They may not be the most explosive, but they also are not predictable. This group is as balanced as any and are capable of challenging any defense they face.
The Eagles may have the best record, and the Saints may have the best quarterback in the NFC playoff field. But when combining body of work, film, stats, roster talent and strength of opposition, the Vikings may have the strongest case for being viewed as the best in the NFC.