OK, quick show of hands. Who here believes the Minnesota Vikings will successfully defend their home turf in Sunday’s NFL playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks?
You goofballs in the back wearing those ridiculous horned helmets: You don’t count.
Is there anybody else? Anybody at all?
But perhaps we’re being a tad dramatic. The Vikings are, after all, 11-5 after going on the road and beating the Green Bay Packers 20-13 in Week 17’s de facto NFC North championship game. They won their final three regular-season games and played 9-3 football following a 2-2 start. They are, by conventional measures, a good and dangerous team.
The esteemed FiveThirtyEight.com, piloted by statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver and owned by ESPN, gives the Vikings a chance – a pretty good one – to topple the two-time-defending champs of the NFC. A 44-percent chance, to be precise, though the math (can we call it simply that? What the hell do we know?) gets ominous from there; the site gives Team Purple only a 6-percent shot to reach the Super Bowl, and a 3-percent shot to win it.
In other words, yeah – Minny’s outlook from here is, well, mini.
Yet let’s rewind enough to recount some of the details of Vikings-Packers, which was a huge game in the sense that a division title – and not for a horseshit division like the NFC East or the AFC South – was on the line. All right, so it wasn’t huge in the sense that the winner was going to suddenly stand astride the 15-1 Carolina Panthers or the 13-3 Arizona Cardinals, or even the 10-6 wild-card Seahawks, who beat the hell out of the Cards 36-6 on Sunday. But come on, let’s try to be fun about this. It isn’t every year we get 10-5 vs. 10-5 with a division crown at stake.
Vikings-Packers was utterly fun.
Not so much during the first three quarters of the game, which ended with Minnesota on top 20-3. But the fourth quarter was a riot, with Aaron Rodgers and the Pack coming back and the Vikings straining as hard as humanly possible not to shit their pants.
The whole thing was teed up late in the third quarter when Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen rushed Rodgers and forced a fumble that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn scooped up and returned 55 yards for a score. It was 20-3 and couldn’t have seemed more in the books. Yet Rodgers – his injury-riddled offense in shambles all night, as it had been for much of the season – took his team down the field for a must-have scoring drive. There was a 32-yard completion to James Jones on second-and-18, a fourth-down conversion to Randall Cobb and finally a 16-yard touchdown toss to Richard Rodgers.
It was game on, with the Vikings playing their part in Green Bay’s apparent comeback. With the score 20-13 and a little over five minutes remaining, Cordarrelle Patterson ran back a kick 70 breathtaking yards before going in an instant from stud to dud – Packers kicker Mason Crosby stripped Patterson of the ball to give the home team another critical possession. The Packers drove into the red zone before Xavier Rhodes intercepted Rodgers in the end zone.
Rhodes, who had a brilliant night, later got a paw on Rodgers’ Hail Mary heave into the end zone on the final play of the game. After it was over, the cornerback talked about a rematch with a Seattle team that crushed the Vikings in Minneapolis 38-7 in Week 13.
“We’re just going to come together as a team and look at our flaws and our mistakes we [made] last time,” he said, “and try to come with a better attitude and not make a lot of mental errors.”
Are mental errors really all that stand between the Vikings and the Seahawks? Minnesota will be going for its second postseason victory in 11 years; Seattle for its 12th in that same period and, of course, for its third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl. One team has NFL rushing champ Adrian Peterson; the other oozes celebrity and track record.
A better way to put it: One team endeavored to win the NFC North; the other thinks only of Super Bowls.
“We talked about this Day 1 at training camp,” Griffen said of ending Green Bay’s four-year run as division winner. “All our dreams came true.”
One must assume the Vikings have other dreams – bigger dreams – yet whether or not they’re capable of realizing them is another story. They will be afterthoughts in the playoff discussion, to be sure. But 11-5 is pretty damn good, and it’s a record that can’t be faked.
Good luck finding anyone who believes the Vikings will be serious players this postseason. On the other hand, what if? They’ve come this far. They’ll have the home turf on Sunday, horns out and shields up. Let’s see what they can do.