Whether or not the Minnesota Vikings were ahead of schedule in winning this division title in coach Mike Zimmer’s second season was irrelevant. The team reveled in what has been a recently rare win at Green Bay that wrested the NFC North away from the Packers.
The accomplishment for only the third time in 15 years demanded celebration even with a daunting opponent waiting in the playoffs. The orange sports drink came pouring out of the chilly bucket onto Zimmer’s head in the middle of Lambeau Field. The players proudly wore their black T-shirts and gray caps announcing them as division champions, posing in small groups for selfies around the hallowed stadium.
“It feels good. We’ve been trying to get this for a long time,” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who could actually only relate to a portion of fruitless pursuits, having only been around for three seasons.
Even for a younger guy, the wait probably felt like double that. Having only beaten the Packers once in the previous 12 matchups, the Vikings were overdue. They played like it, too, in the 20-13 victory Sunday night.
“We were gassed. We had a couple guys throw up on the sideline, they were so out of juice,” Zimmer said.
The defense, on the field for the majority of the second half during perhaps its finest performance of the season, was needed all the way through the final play, when Anthony Barr batted down a desperation heave by Aaron Rodgers into the end zone.
Will the adrenaline level return to high next Sunday for the wild-card game against Seattle?
“It’s playoffs,” Zimmer said, smiling. “It’s time.”
The Vikings finished with an 11-5 or better record for just the sixth time in 38 years since the NFL schedule expanded to 16 games. In each of the last three such seasons (15-1 in 1998, 11-5 in 2000 and 12-4 in 2009), they reached the NFC championship game.
“I’ve been in the NFL 22 years and won the Super Bowl my second year and haven’t been back. It’s awful hard, and when you get these opportunities you have to try to take advantage of them,” said Zimmer, the defensive backs coach for Dallas in the 1995 championship season.
“I hope this is just a step, honestly. I don’t want this to be the defining moment of my career, for sure. I hope that there’s a lot more on the horizon.”
The Vikings lost to just one team that didn’t make the playoffs, a dud of an opener at San Francisco. They’ll take their share of flaws and vulnerabilities into the playoffs, but they’ve also been as consistent as any team in the NFL.
“It’s not a surprise that we are where we’re at, but they’ve earned this opportunity and we have to go take it,” Zimmer said.
The balance of confidence without complacency is a difficult one to strike, one that’s eluded the Vikings on several occasions this season. But Zimmer has masterfully guided this team to play to its ability and potential.
“He’s been preaching to us since Day 1 the type of team that we have and the types of things that we can accomplish, and how much he believes in us,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “From Day 1 he saw how much potential this team had, and now we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. This is just the tip of the iceberg with winning the division title.”