For years, there has been something bad typically associated with the Minnesota Vikings playing in prime time or in front of a national TV audience. Two weeks ago, the NFL announced that it was changing the time on the Minnesota-New York Giants game to prime time and the Vikings were looking to not only to lock down a playoff spot, but send a message to rest of the league that Minnesota is a team to be reckoned with in January.
After pounding the Giants into submission 49-17, the Vikings made the statement they were looking for, especially a defense that harassed, hounded and pounded Eli Manning from the time the game started until the time he was pulled from the game for his own protection.
“That first half, it couldn’t have been any better at all,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “Those guys up front played phenomenal. We stopped the run, we got after Eli Manning and on the back end we covered them up. That’s how defenses are supposed to be made. We went out there, we executed and we dominated the game.”
The Vikings set the tone early. In the first quarter, the Giants had minus-6 yards passing. Manning didn’t have a completion until less than 11 minutes remained in the half. In the second quarter, safety Harrison Smith made his triumphant return complete by taking Manning for a 35-yard Pick-6 that gave the Vikings a 16-3 lead that just kept expanding.
After being out of action for almost a month, Smith said it was a great way to return to action and get back with his teammates.
“It was great just getting back out there and playing with the guys,” Smith said. “We were hitting in all phases of the game (Sunday) and that play was one that felt good. I saw it coming and thought I had a chance to do something with it and it all opened up in front of me.”
Later in the game, Munnerlyn came just 3 yards away from scoring a defensive touchdown like Smith did. He jumped a route and picked off Manning and was forced out of bounds just shy of the goal line.
Munnerlyn was happy with the performance his team put in, but was kicking himself after the game about the points he came close to putting on the board.
“I’m kind of mad about it,” Munnerlyn said. “It could have been number six to the crib for my career. I came up a little short. I know the guys are going to get on me a little about that. I’ve got to score right there. I’ve got to go elbowing and get in that end zone. Even though I’m 5-9, I can jump. I should have jumped.”
The Vikings have been looking better on defense with each passing week in December. With a depleted defense that was extremely shorthanded against a high-powered Arizona offense, the Vikings held the Cardinals to two touchdowns and three field goals in a 23-20 loss that the Vikings had a chance to win. Last week, the Vikings steamrolled Chicago and, with Sunday’s win – the most points put up by a Vikings team since Randy Moss was a rookie in 1998 – defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said the team is hitting its stride at the perfect time.
“We’ve looked at this last stretch that the more pressure that has been on our shoulders, the more fun we’re going to have and the tighter we’re going to be,” Floyd said. “We’re playing for each other and we believe in this team. We keep saying that we feel like this week was maybe our best game of the year. Hopefully, we’ll say that again next week, too.”
Linebacker Chad Greenway said Sunday was one of the best team performances the defense has put in this season because they’ve been getting back to doing the things that got them off to a strong start and had them in the postseason conversation all season.
Putting the boots to Manning and the Giants was a blueprint of how the Mike Zimmer defense works – if you don’t make stupid plays or mental errors, you’ll win.
“We just limited our own mistakes – that was the biggest key,” Greenway said. “If we do that, we give ourselves a pretty good chance to win ball games. You can tell the ones that we haven’t – too many mistakes, too many penalties, too many mental errors. It was great to see the guys playing for the guy next to him and getting it done as a team.”
While the Vikings can celebrate their inclusion in the playoffs for the first time in four years, they aren’t satisfied or finished. When the 2015 schedule came out, they saw the final game of the regular season was at Green Bay and wondered if it would have the type of significance they hoped it would.
Not only has it met that expectation, it has exceeded, and Sunday night’s game with the Packers will be for all the marbles in the division and the No. 3 seed in the NFC playoffs.
“When you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Green Bay has proved over the last few years that they’re the best. We’ve got to go into a hostile environment. They’re the defending champ the last four years. What better way to do it – on the road and hopefully prove to the world that we belong.”