With temperatures now regularly in the 30s and sometimes the 40s, there are no players left wearing shorts in outdoor practices. The days of Bud Grant in short sleeves on the sideline are over.
But Mike Zimmer has done his best to prepare his Minnesota Vikings to be able to win in the elements of the north. There is the hard-nosed defense that has yet to give up more than two touchdowns in a game and is second for points allowed per game. There is the top-ranked running game on offense and a team that has generally (up until the last two games, anyway) been pretty disciplined.
Zimmer has admitted the wins aren’t always pretty, but he also won’t apologize for winning, and at 8-3 there is little apologizing that has been done toward Vikings fans.
Eventually, the Vikings may have to adjust if defenses stop the NFL’s top running back or the defense begins to fade and points are needed in bigger numbers on offense. For now, this is who the Vikings are.
“One of the things about football is being able to adjust to a lot of different things. Not every week is the same, sometimes it’s the opponent you’re playing, sometimes it’s injuries, sometimes it’s the weather, there’s a lot of different things that go into those plans,” Zimmer said. “I do feel like any time you have a north in your division - NFC North or AFC North - this is a pretty good ingredient going forward when the weather starts getting colder and things like that. And it’s a little bit about a mindset too.”
Zimmer’s most recent stop on his NFL ascension to head coach was in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, who have had more time to develop a well-rounded roster. The Vikings are getting there, with defense the draft-weekend concentration much of the last few years as the “fixer” went to work to rectify a defense that was wrecked and sometimes wretched before he arrived.
Now, that’s largely in place, but it will be tested without big nose tackle Linval Joseph on Sunday against a powerful back like Seattle’s Thomas Rawls. Previously, the Vikings caught some breaks with the running backs they faced. Against Kansas City, Jamaal Charles was just lost for the season. Against Atlanta, Devonta Freeman was out. Even against Seattle, there will be no Marshawn Lynch, but this time the backup, Rawls, has been out-performing what Lynch was doing previously.
Offensively, the Vikings have figured it out. Adrian Peterson is the bell cow that the play sheet centers around.
“You look at the last two games that we’ve won on the road – in Oakland and at Atlanta – just that constant pounding for four quarters and then in the fourth quarter Adrian breaks a big run. That was consistent through both games,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
The Vikings have found good times on the road this year after struggling there for several years previously, but now that hover around freezing the Vikings will have three of their final five games at home, and their season finale on Jan. 3 at Lambeau Field. They hope to make that only their regular-season finale, not the end to their season, and have that lead them into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
If ever there was a time when the elements set up ripe for the Vikings’ style, this is it. But first they have to prove they can do it against a Seattle team built on the run and strong defense, much like the Vikings. Only this is also the defending two-time NFC champion Seahawks.
Last week, the Vikings were under a dome and exploited the No. 1-ranked run defense at the time for 191 yards.
“We kept it pretty simple. The run game was maybe as simple as we’ve ever had it,” tight end Rhett Ellison said. “We just kept it simple so we could keep it fast and physical. We focused on ourselves, we didn’t focus on what they were doing and I think that helped us out a lot.”
This time, it’s a similar defensive scheme with better personnel. Can they do it again – at home and outdoors?
“I think our style fits the element that we’ll be playing in four out of our last five games, but we also feel like we have a style that we can take anywhere,” Rudolph said. “That’s kind of something that’s been huge since Zim got here – we can go play in a parking if we have to. It doesn’t matter where we play, when we play. It’s a style that if we play the way we’re capable of, it can be in a dome, where it’s completely dry and 70 degrees, or it can be out in the snow in the middle of December. We feel like we have a style that translates anywhere.”
There isn’t expected to be any snow Sunday against Seattle, and temperatures are predicted around 40 degrees. Then it’s down to Arizona on Thursday night before three games to close the regular season outside – two in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.
This is the team Zimmer has built. It’s his defense and Norv Turner’s power running-game offense.
It’s prove-it time. Either the Vikings set themselves up for at least one playoff game at home or they went cold in the cold.
“Since I’ve walked in here, it’s about preaching toughness and discipline and accountability and being a smart team,” Zimmer said, “and that’s kind of who we are right now.”