EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — If nothing else, overconfidence will not be a problem for a Minnesota Vikings team that is 5-2 and sits atop the NFC North.
“Unfortunately, we know when you’re halfway through a season, it doesn’t mean anything,” head coach Mike Zimmer said this week as the team turned its attention to the winless Cleveland Browns (0-7) and all the distractions that come with a game in London. “We’ve been there before.”
A year ago, the Vikings were the league’s last undefeated team at 5-0. But disaster few saw coming loomed heading into their bye week.
When play resumed at Philadelphia, the defensive and special teams touchdowns that were propping up the offense disappeared. Left in their wake was the weight of too many injuries to overcome, particularly on the offensive line.
A loss at Philadelphia was followed by a Monday Night Football game at Chicago on Halloween. Surely, the 5 1/2-point favorited Vikings would right the ship that night, right? Wrong.
They not only lost, they started a string of events that further crippled the team’s season.
During the game, Zimmer scratched his eye, detaching his retina. The next morning, he had the first of many surgical procedures that stretched into the offseason, affected his work schedule and eventually caused him to miss the Cowboys game late in the season.
Two days after the Bears loss, offensive coordinator Norv Turner walked into Zimmer’s office early in the morning and quit. Sensing Zimmer’s increased reliance on newly-hired tight ends coach Pat Shurmur and sensitive to Zimmer’s suggestions to make changes to the offense, Turner walked away, leaving Shurmur as an interim offensive coordinator with a decimated offensive line and no semblance of a running game.
The gloom and doom continued as the Vikings turned that 5-0 start into an 8-8 finish. They were knocked out of the playoff race on Christmas Eve in Green Bay.
“This year feels a lot different,” said running back Jerick McKinnon. “We had a lot of guys injured last year. Now, we’re healthier and we’ve got a good thing going. We’re just trying to feed off the momentum.”
The Vikings have had injuries. The most damaging was rookie running back Dalvin Cook going down with a season-ending ACL tear. But this year, it’s the division-rival Packers, who lost Aaron Rodgers to a broken right collarbone, who are in danger of being unable to function because of injuries.
As the Vikings take on the Browns in what could be considered the ultimate trap game, there’s a sense of calm because the Vikings’ fifth-ranked scoring defense is healthy, and the rebuilt offensive line is light years ahead of where it was last year, when 12 players were needed to get through the season, including five left tackles.
Worst in the league in rushing by far a year ago, the Vikings are now ranked eighth (124.6). That has led to better balance, more first downs, a well-rested defense and even a 3-2 record for backup quarterback Case Keenum.
But the Vikings don’t have to dig far into their memories to remember how quickly the current three-game winning streak can turn on them.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, what their record is or anything,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “We certainly know after last year that you can’t take anything for granted.”
SERIES HISTORY: 15th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 10-4. The teams have never played at a neutral site. The Vikings are 2-4 against the Browns on the road. In their last meeting, Week 3 of the 2013 season, the Vikings were winless but still heavy favorites against the Browns at the Metrodome. The Browns won 31-27, sending the Vikings off to London to play the Steelers in a matchup of 0-3 teams. The teams have had one postseason meeting. They played the last NFL Championship Game in 1969. The Vikings won 27-7 in Minnesota to advance to Super Bowl IV. The NFL and the AFL merged the following season.
–The Vikings will face the Browns in London without strong safety Andrew Sendejo. He was suspended by the league for one game for his vicious hit to the head of Ravens receiver Mike Wallace three minutes into Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was tackling and trying to strip the ball from Wallace when Sendejo raced across the field and delivered a direct blow to the left side of Wallace’s helmet. Sendejo’s helmet gave a glancing blow, but his right shoulder hit so hard that Wallace’s helmet came off as he slammed to the ground and his head banged off the turf. He suffered a game-ending concussion.
A penalty flag was thrown, negating a fumble and giving the Ravens a first down.
Asked about the hit before the league announced the suspension on Monday, head coach Mike Zimmer said he disagreed with the penalty and was going to send the play to the league office for an explanation.
“I think the receiver took five steps after he caught the ball and I think (Sendejo) hit him with a glancing blow,” Zimmer said. “(Wallace) established position as a runner, took two extra steps and Xavier was trying to pull the ball out, which he ended up doing.”
NFL vice president of football operations Jon Runyan said the violation was “flagrant and warrants suspension because it could have been avoided … (and) was violently directed at the head and neck area …” Sendejo, who will lose $173,529, was fined $24,309 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate in Week 2.
After the game, Sendejo told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he did not intend to hurt Wallace and that he didn’t purposely aim for his head.
“People don’t realize how fast it happens,” Sendejo said. “It’s not like there’s time to say, ‘Oh, let me hit him here (points to my left shoulder)’ or, ‘Oh, let me hit him there (right shoulder).’
“You just go in as fast as you can and make the tackle. Sometimes, it’s unfortunate that guys get hit in the head. I wasn’t aiming for his head. That’s just football.”
–Several Vikings have never been to London, so they don’t know what to expect. Right tackle Mike Remmers knows one thing: It won’t feel normal.
“Sunday, I was eating breakfast at 8:30 in the morning,” Remmers said. “I was like, ‘Next Sunday, we’re going to be kicking off at this time.’ It’s different, but I think we have a good plan.”
The Vikings spent the early part of the week giving players tips on how to prepare their bodies for the eight-hour flight and the six-hour time difference. They land Thursday morning and will practice about five hours later.
“They told us to just sleep as much as you can, especially on the flight out there,” Remmers said.
“They gave us a lot of good tips,” receiver Jarius Wright said. “Like don’t drink a lot of caffeine on the plane. Get your rest. It makes a lot of sense.”
Receiver Adam Thielen said he can feel the effects of any flight the team takes, let alone an eight-hour flight.
“Even when you travel to Chicago, you still feel the effects of traveling on a plane,” Thielen said. “So we’re going to have to recover fast from it. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
NOTES: QB Case Keenum was listed as limited in practice Wednesday with a chest injury. … LT Riley Reiff left Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter and did not return. The team said it shouldn’t be anything serious, so Reiff is expected to play. … LG Jeremiah Sirles (knee) got his second start in place of regular starter Nick Easton last week. But Sirles, who did not practice Wednesday, went down late in the third quarter. His status is uncertain for this week’s game. Rookie Danny Isidora replaced Sirles and did well. … LG Nick Easton (calf) appears to be getting closer to returning after missing the last two games. He was limited in practice Wednesday. … QB Sam Bradford (knee) continues to rehab and rest his left knee. He’s not expected to return anytime soon. … QB Teddy Bridgewater (knee) is in his second week of practice since returning from the horrific knee injury that he suffered a week before the 2016 season. He remains on PUP and is expected to stay there until at least after next week’s bye. . CB Mackensie Alexander (hip), the team’s nickel back, missed last week’s game. Alexander could be returning as soon as this week. He was limited in Wednesday’s practice. … WR Stefon Diggs (groin) has missed the last two games, but could play this week, head coach Mike Zimmer said. … WR Adam Thielen is the only player in the NFL to have at least five catches in every game this season
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