EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Since their birth in 1961, the Minnesota Vikings have not won six consecutive road games in a single season. They are sitting on five straight as they head to Carolina as a 2 1/2-point favorite in Sunday’s game.
That’s how good head coach Mike Zimmer’s team is. It’s 10-2, winners of eight straight, four games clear in the NFC North and atop the conference.
Now what? Some teams can handle this kind of success. Some teams can’t. Why is that, Zim?
“I think it’s human nature,” he said Wednesday. “Some guys get full of themselves and go from there. Everybody is telling them how good they are and they listen and get complacent.
“It goes the other way, too. Everybody tells you how bad you are and you listen. It’s really human nature to back off of things when a team is winning.”
Strangely, the Vikings are one of the healthiest and more confident teams in the league despite losing their starting quarterback for all but six quarters and their No. 1 running back in Week 4.
Quarterback Case Keenum is playing loose, but careful with only five interceptions in 360 passes. The running game ranks sixth behind a dramatically improved offensive line. And, boy oh boy, is that No. 2-ranked scoring defense (17.0) ever flexing its muscles with superstar talent at all three levels.
Zimmer, the mastermind behind this defense, was asked if this is the best defense he’s been a part of.
“Each one is a little bit different,” he said. “I’ve been around some great defenses, great players. I really like this group. I think we have a lot of good playmakers.
“But I like, probably more so, I like really the confidence they play with and the desire to compete each Sunday. This group really likes to go out and compete and prove that they are good.”
The Vikings are controlling games by ranking first in third-down defense (27.21 percent), first in third-down offense (45.96) and third in fewest giveaways (10).
Carolina, meanwhile, has had an up-and-down season that has landed them at 8-4 with the sixth-ranked defense and a shaky 18th-ranked offense that has shown the inconsistencies one would expect because its quarterback, Cam Newton, missed the entire offseason because of right shoulder surgery.
Zimmer is 2-0 against the Panthers, including a 22-10 road win last year. His Vikings are expected to win Sunday.
Will they respond as they did last week in Atlanta? Or the week before at Detroit? Or will the pressure start to close in on the team no one expected would be 10-2 when Sam Bradford went down after Week 1?
SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 8-5. The Vikings are 2-2 at Carolina, including a 22-10 win last season. Head coach Mike Zimmer is 2-0 against the Panthers. His other victory was a 31-13 rout on a bitterly cold day at Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium in 2014. The Vikings scored twice on blocked punts in that game. The Vikings also have won three of the past four meetings and five of the past seven. The teams have never met in the playoffs.
–Quarterback Case Keenum has been sacked only nine times. Even head coach Mike Zimmer has been surprised by Keenum’s mobility in the pocket.
“Some of it is vision,” Zimmer said. “Some of it is the feel, having a feel in a pocket. Understanding that sometimes coverages dictate that you can run. I think it’s just a feel.”
Keenum was reminded that the Panthers’ defense ranks fourth in sacks per pass play. Defensive end Mario Addison and ageless linebacker Julius Pepper each has 8.5 sacks.
Asked what he thinks the Panthers will do to him on Sunday, Keenum laughed and said, “Hey, if they don’t want to rush the passer, that would be cool.”
–With the brutal hits in Monday night’s Bengals-Steelers game still a hot-button issue on Wednesday, a reporter asked head coach Mike Zimmer what he does to try and keep players focused on playing within the rules rather than going rogue when tempers flare.
“I talk to them about playing clean,” he said. “I didn’t see the second half of that game, so I don’t know exactly what happened or what was going on.
“We talk to (the players) about playing clean. We try to play by the rules. We try to do things the right way. We talk to them about how you have to put a target on the receiver where you want to hit him. Legally. Same thing on running backs and quarterbacks. We don’t want to be a high-penalized team.”
NOTES: QB Case Keenum heads into Sunday’s game against the Panthers with 15 straight completions, including all 13 in the second half of the Falcons game. He needs two more to open the Carolina game to break the franchise record of 16 straight by Tommy Kramer on Nov. 11, 1979 against Green Bay. … WR Adam Thielen ranks second in the NFL in third-down catches (27) and first downs off third-down catches (21). … TE Kyle Rudolph has 50 catches for 465 yards and five touchdowns. He needs only 35 more yards to give him his second 50-catch, 500-yard, five-touchdown season. The only tight end to do that twice in franchise history is Steve Jordan in 1986 and 1988. … TE David Morgan did not practice Wednesday because of the concussion he suffered on Sunday. If he’s unable to play, the Vikings will miss his versatile blocking. But they also can turn more to fullback C.J. Ham. … RT Mike Remmers did not practice on Wednesday. He has missed five straight games. He missed three because of a concussion, returned to practice and then missed two because of a lower back injury. … C Pat Elflein was limited in Wednesday’s practice because of a shoulder injury. He’s expected to play. If he can’t, the Vikings have two former centers starting at the guard positions. Left guard Nick Easton probably would start at center, while backup Jeremiah Sirles would step in at left guard.
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