This was second down, midway through the first quarter of a then-scoreless game, so Bridgewater could’ve played it safe. Adrian Peterson was out wide in that formation, open for what ought to have been at least a short completion in the flat.
Bridgewater ignored that option and locked in on Diggs, whose fade route into the corner of the end zone required a difficult throw that the second-year quarterback made look easy. The ball floated just right, over the receiver’s left shoulder where it was out of Porter’s reach.
Touchdown, Minnesota Vikings, and the Bears were behind the remainder of the game.
“He decided that he’d try to hit the big one. I think that play probably shows as much about his confidence level right now,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
Describing Bridgewater as coming of age wouldn’t quite be accurate, since he’s barely 23 with only 26 career starts. The timing of this groove he’s in, though, couldn’t be better with the Vikings (9-5) tantalizingly close to a spot in the playoffs.
“He just maybe feels a lot more comfortable with the things we’re doing now,” Zimmer said. “I think we’re starting to settle into who we are.”
That identity, as long as Peterson is in the backfield, won’t stray from a ground-based approach. Whether it’s been a better mix of calls by offensive coordinator Norv Turner, stronger protection from the line in front of him or sharper, smarter throws by Bridgewater, though, the passing attack has been buzzing for two weeks.
The Vikings lost 23-20 at Arizona on Dec. 10, but Bridgewater set a career high with 335 yards through the air, including the tying touchdown pass with less than 5 minutes left. His fumble during a sack in field-goal range with 5 seconds remaining was the only glaring mistake, but the play was slow-developing with receivers running left to right and no safe options with that amount of time.
Then on Sunday, Bridgewater threw for a career-most four touchdowns against a Bears defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards passing allowed. He ran for one, too, and completed 17 of 20 attempts on his way to a career-best 154.4 passer rating. That’s 3.9 points short of the best possible number.
Bridgewater, typically reluctant to analyze his play, rank his performances or boast about any accomplishments, acknowledged the game “probably was” his best as a pro. Yes, he’s still near the bottom of the league lists for touchdowns and yards and many of the main statistical categories for quarterbacks, but the Vikings will take his 15-11 record and the way he has rallied from some of his worst plays and games.
The Vikings have been thriving on screen plays, quick outs and comebacks and crossing patterns that have allowed Diggs, wide receiver Jarius Wright and running back Jerick McKinnon to use their speed and turn short catches into long gains. Mix in some play-action passes that feed off Peterson’s inside running, and there’s plenty of diversity in a scheme that can be predictable and containable when Peterson can’t find room.
“It’s hard for a defense to handle all of those things,” Bridgewater said.
If the Vikings beat the New York Giants on Sunday night, they’ll be in the playoffs. But they could clinch before they even arrive at the stadium.
The only scenario in which they would miss out is a three-way tie with Atlanta and Seattle at 9-7 for the two wild-card spots. So if the Falcons (7-7) lose one of their last two or the Seahawks (9-5) win one of their last two, the Vikings will be in the postseason for just the second time since 2009 even if they lose out.
To make any kind of a move in the playoffs, of course, they’ll need more of this from Bridgewater.
“I’m comfortable with whatever situation we’re put in,” he said. “As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”