In the NFL, timing is everything. Teams can struggle for much of the season and suddenly hit a switch and turn into a different team. In 2012, the Minnesota Vikings were mired at 6-6 before rattling off four straight wins to finish the year at 10-6 and make the playoffs. This season, Kansas City was having Last Rites read over the franchise at 1-5 and now could potentially win the AFC West with their 10th straight win.
Getting hot is one thing. Getting hot at the end of the season heading into the playoffs is the momentum many teams have used to propel themselves deep into the playoffs.
In the Minnesota Vikings locker room, players were asked a variety of questions about Packers Week and much of the questioning concerned the last two games. The Vikings are looking like the team many predicted hey had the potential to be, and getting momentum rolling now is the key.
“You’ve got to get hot at the right time,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “I definitely think that’s legitimate. We’re peaking at the right time. You look at our offense. They’re playing phenomenal at the right time. It’s playoff time, so I definitely believe we’re peaking at the right time. I do believe in that. We didn’t peak too soon. We’re peaking just right. We have a chance to win the NFC North.”
Munnerlyn was one of the few outside players brought in by Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman to add players that were viewed as a glove fit for Zimmer’s scheme, along with veterans like Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Terence Newman.
They were told that Minnesota was building something and that they should be a part of it. The goal from Day 1 has been to knock the Packers off the top of the NFC North and their showdown Sunday will be the chance to accomplish that goal.
“It would be huge,” Munnerlyn said. “The last time these guys won a division title around here was the Brett Favre era (in 2009). It’s been a long time. We want to be in control of the North, so it starts now. It starts on Sunday night – big-time football. We’re excited about it, everybody’s watching to see what the Minnesota Vikings are going to do.”
For those who were around through the good times and the lean times, they know the position the team has put themselves in – a position they’ve been in just once since 2009. When the Vikings last made the playoffs in 2012, they needed to take out Green Bay at the Metrodome in Week 17 to get it done.
Brian Robison was a key member of that team and he said the same sort of vibe is back in the locker room. The players are excited about the opportunity, but it is critical to not overthink. Just keep doing what has got you there and the rest will take care of itself.
Robison and the defensive line have been a major part of the recent surge for the Vikings and have produced nine sacks in the last two games. When the front end of the defense is successful, it has a ripple effect throughout the defense.
Safety Andrew Sendejo had an interception in the game with the Giants last week and said much of the prolific play by the secondary the last couple of games has been the result of the defensive line being as dominating the last two weeks as it has been at any time during the season.
“We love those guys,” Sendejo said. “They do a great job and make our job easier. Hats off to them. A lot of games are won up front and I think that’s why our defense has been successful this year, because of those guys.”
The difference between the end of December last year and this year has been pronounced. The mood is different. The excitement is different. Players want to show up early and hang around after practice. For players like Munnerlyn, the outlook has been completely different.
Very few players had any familiarity with Zimmer’s defensive scheme and it was a work in progress in 2014. This time around, from OTAs through training camp through the season, it has been a 180-degree turn. As the players have come to grasp Zimmer’s defense, the results have changed significantly – for individual players and the defense as a whole.
“It’s completely different,” Munnerlyn said. “We’re playing for something now. We’re playing for the playoffs. Last year was all new for me. It was a new system. This year, I’m ahead of the game a little bit. I’m learning things and I’m getting better each and every week. This team has grown a lot since last year. We’re a fighting team. We go out there and we do what we’re supposed to do.”
For the first time all season, the Vikings offense and defense has come together at the same time. In wins over the Bears and Giants over the last two games, Minnesota has outscored its opponents 87-34.
The offense is clicking. The defense is aggressive and forcing the issue. Special teams are coming through as expected. The result has been the best two games of the season coming in December, and with the Packers up next with a playoff atmosphere the Vikings have the look of a team poised to make a legitimate run.
“I think it’s very important to peak at the end of the season,” Robison said. “You look at some of the Super Bowl champs over the last decade, most of them got hot going into the playoffs. It’s definitely about getting everything going at the right time.
The 2015 season has been a work in progress for the Vikings. They won five straight games to have a record of 7-2 and, after a rough patch in which they lost three of four games to NFC playoff teams (Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona), they have the chance to right the ship and leave Wisconsin with a title that has been the private domain of the Packers since 2011.
The team has the chance to achieve its preseason goal of winning the division and some of the losses have prepared them for this moment. Now it’s simply a matter of getting over the hump and getting it done.
“You look at some of the games we’ve lost, there have been some really tight, close situations,” Munnerlyn said. “We can learn how to win in those tight, close situations. Now we’re learning and we’re learning at the right time. It’s playoff time. It’s exciting, so let’s see what team shows up Sunday and move on from there.”