EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is using recent history to help illustrate to his players the importance of not taking their proverbial foot off the accelerator now that they have clinched the NFC North.
“These guys are pretty smart,” Zimmer said. “They know what we’re still playing for.”
With games against Green Bay in Lambeau Field on Saturday night and home against Chicago next week, the Vikings would finish 13-3 by beating two teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention. If they do that while Philadelphia loses its last two, the Vikings will clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and wouldn’t even have to leave home if they reached Super Bowl LII.
“These next two games are huge, and we know it,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph. “We don’t want to leave here once the playoffs start.”
The path to the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye is more manageable. The Vikings can lose a game and still clinch the No. 2 seed if Carolina loses at least one game.
Getting one of the top two seeds brings with it a first-round bye. No NFL team has reached the Super Bowl without a first-round bye since the 2012 Ravens.
For now, however, Zimmer and the Vikings are focused on a Packers team that put Aaron Rodgers back on injured reserve once they were eliminated with Atlanta’s victory on Monday night. Brett Hundley, who went 3-4 while Rodgers recovered from a broken right collarbone against the Vikings on Oct. 15, will start.
“(Vikings players) know (the Packers) are out of the playoffs, but I don’t think that’s a big factor,” Zimmer said. “It’s a division game. We have a lot to play for. What I talked to them about was two weeks ago we lost (at Carolina).
“We had a new sense of urgency and a new focus and that’s what we need to do again. Just because we won this last week doesn’t mean, ‘OK, we can go back to how we were,’ and end up getting beat. We are just trying to stay on point with everything we do and continue to move forward and continue to try to get wins.”
The Vikings are trying to reach 13 wins for only the second time in franchise history. They went 15-1 in 1998 before losing to Atlanta in the NFC title game.
Zimmer arrived in 2014 and has wrestled the NFC North title away from Green Bay twice in four seasons. This year’s title was aided tremendously by the fact that Rodgers missed seven games after breaking his collarbone while being tackled by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr.
Packers fans sure won’t be happy with Barr come Saturday night. But Zimmer isn’t apologizing for taking another division crown from his team’s biggest rival.
“They’re a great organization,” said Zimmer, who is 3-4 against the Packers. “They have a great coach, great players. I knew that was a team that if we were going to end up winning divisions, that’s a team we probably would have to beat.”
SERIES HISTORY: 112th regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 59-50-2. Vikings are 23-31-2 against the Packers in Wisconsin. The last two years at Lambeau Field couldn’t have gone any more differently. Two years ago, they met in a prime-time season finale to decide the division. The Viking won 20-13. Last year, the Vikings needed to win to stay in the playoff race. The Packers won 38-25. The Vikings are 1-2 against the Packers in Lambeau under Zimmer. The teams have played twice in the playoffs. Both were wild-card games at Green Bay. The Vikings won during the 2004 season, while the Packers won during the 2012 season.
–Packers head coach Mike McCarthy wasn’t happy a day after Rodgers broke his right collarbone while being tackled by Barr back on Oct. 15.
At the time, he called Barr’s hit, which came after Rodgers released the ball, “totally unnecessary” and an “illegal act.”
Wednesday, McCarthy was on a conference call with Twin Cities reporters when he said there was a difference between Barr’s hit and the one Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis leveled on Packers receiver Davante Adams during an interception return on Sunday. Adams is in the concussion protocol and might not be able to play Saturday night.
“The hit on Aaron was definitely within the framework of playing aggressive, things like that,” McCarthy said. “But the hit on Davante Adams, there’s no place for that.”
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer agreed. He also said hits like the one Davis made — where Adams was heading toward his own goal line before getting clobbered — are ones that players can be much more careful executing.
“I think those you should screen them like a basketball guy instead of hitting them,” Zimmer said. “You can knock the heck out of them even if you don’t hit them in the neck and head area. You can screen them, get the job done and you know you’re not going to get anybody hurt.
“I had Keith Rivers play Pittsburgh one time and he ended up getting his jaw broke on a very similar hit like that. He ended up missing the whole year. I think we got to continue to try to be safer with all those things.”
–Zimmer put it perfectly Wednesday when asked if he envisioned Pro Bowl potential in receiver Adam Thielen when the two first met in 2014.
“No, probably not,” Zimmer said of the former Division II player. “But I didn’t know his heart. Now, I know his heart.”
Thielen signed with the Vikings after a rookie tryout camp in 2013. He was a special teams player in 2014 and 2015, a starting receiver in 2016 and now a first-time Pro Bowl player.
The Vikings had four players voted into the Pro Bowl. The other three were cornerback Xavier Rhodes in his second straight year, and defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Anthony Barr in their third straight trips.
Some Vikings players were upset that only four players were selected from an 11-3 team that won its division. Among the others who can say they deserved a spot are safety Harrison Smith, nose tackle Linval Joseph and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“The fact that we only had four players picked,” Rudolph said, “that’s not right.”
NOTES: LT Riley Reiff, who missed his first game as a Viking on Sunday, was limited in Wednesday’s practice because of an ankle injury. If he can’t play, Rashod Hill will make his second straight start at left tackle after starting five straight at right tackle. … CB Mackensie Alexander, who missed Sunday’s game, was limited in Wednesday’s practice because of a rib injury. … SS Andrew Sendejo was limited in Wednesday’s practice because of an ankle injury. He is expected to play. … TE Kyle Rudolph, who went from doubtful to questionable to starting in last week’s game, was limited on Wednesday because of an ankle injury. But he’s expected to play on Saturday. … QB Case Keenum completed 20 of 23 passes last week. The completion percentage (87.0) was a career high and the second highest in franchise history behind Brett Favre’s mark of 88.0 against Seattle in 2009.
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(photo courtesy of Vikings.com)