EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings clinched their second NFC North title in three seasons, but their target point is much higher as they take their 11-3 record to Lambeau Field to face the 7-7 Packers on Saturday night.
Sunday’s 34-7 rout of the Bengals kept alive the Vikings’ hopes of a first-round bye followed by playing every postseason game — including Super Bowl LII — at U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
What say you, head coach Mike Zimmer?
“Honestly, we’re not focused on any of that,” he said Monday, a day after his defense held the Bengals to 161 yards and one third-down conversion. “We’re focused on Green Bay and trying to figure out how we can win another game. It’s a great rivalry and they’re an excellent football team and a great organization. We’ll have to play really good to win. If we don’t win this game and the next game, it really doesn’t matter about all that (bye and No. 1 seed) stuff.”
To clinch the NFC’s top seed, the Vikings need to win their final two games against the Packers and Bears, while Philadelphia loses its final two against the Raiders and Cowboys. Meanwhile, to secure the No. 2 seed and a bye week, the Vikings need one win and one Panthers loss.
Asked if he was concerned about his players letting down after winning the division, Zimmer pointed to the Dec. 10 loss at Carolina as the proverbial wakeup call that ended an eight-game winning streak.
“I think our players understand from two weeks ago that this thing (turns) really fast if something goes haywire,” Zimmer said. “That’s No. 1. No. 2, our guys are pretty smart, focused guys and I think they understand what’s at stake. No. 3, we’re still playing for seeding. We would like to play, if possible, every game at U.S. Bank Stadium. I know we’re going to get one, but we’re kind of greedy.”
Quarterback Case Keenum is 9-2 and will start against the Packers. But there’s a chance Teddy Bridgewater, who mopped up Sunday in his first action since his devastating knee injury in August of 2016, could start against the Bears if the Vikings have nothing to play for in Week 17.
The only way the Vikings wouldn’t have anything to play for in Week 17 is if they beat Green Bay, the Eagles beat the Raiders and the Panthers lose to the Buccaneers. They would be locked into the No. 2 seed in that scenario.
“Winning the division is a step in the right direction,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “But we have to win some more games.”
–Nose tackle Linval Joseph is a mountain of a man who isn’t afraid of any legendary quarterback. So asked if he hopes to face Aaron Rodgers on Saturday night regardless of Green Bay’s playoff status, Joseph said you betcha.
“I feel like he’s going to play,” Joseph said. “I feel like he’s got something to prove and I kind of want him to play, because it would be more of a challenge.”
The last time Rodgers faced the Vikings, he was carted out of U.S. Bank Stadium with a broken collarbone that cost him seven games.
He returned Sunday, but threw three interceptions as the Packers lost at Carolina. The Packers will be eliminated from the playoff hunt if Atlanta beats Tampa Bay on Monday night.
“We’ll assume Rodgers will play,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s no different than any other week when you don’t know what’s going on. And you guys wonder why I never say who the (Vikings) quarterback is.”
–Playing a night game in Green Bay on Dec. 23 means the Vikings will head back outside for practices this week. For a bunch of guys who live in Minnesota, they’re none too thrilled about it either.
“Yes, unfortunately, we are practicing outdoors this week,” fullback C.J. Ham said. “But it makes us better. That’s for sure.”
It could be zero or below by kickoff Saturday night.
NOTES: LT Riley Reiff missed his first game as a Viking because of a sprained ankle. … C Pat Elflein returned after missing a game because of a shoulder injury. … MLB Eric Kendricks recorded the second interception and second pick-six of his three-year career. … DE Brian Robison had one sack heading into Sunday’s game. He had two on Sunday. He now has 59 in his career to rank 10th in franchise history.
REPORT CARD VS. BENGALS
–PASSING OFFENSE: A — Case Keenum had one of the quietest 138.4 passer ratings you’ll ever see. He threw only three incompletions in 23 attempts for 236 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers before Teddy Bridgewater replaced him with 10:38 left and the Vikings up 34-0. The Bengals played with an embarrassing disinterest. Running back Jerick McKinnon was left uncovered several times while posting the first 100-yard receiving game (114) by a Vikings running back since 2004.
–RUSHING OFFENSE: B — Latavius Murray showed good power, plowing in from the 1-yard line on second-and-goal during the game’s opening drive. Keenum had a 20-yard scramble, which helped the Vikings reach 124 yards and a 3.6 average as a team. McKinnon averaged only 2.7 yards on nine carries. Murray had 76 yards on 20 carries (3.8).
–PASS DEFENSE: A-plus — Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks’ 31-yard pick-six gave the Vikings a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter. Andy Dalton completed only half of his 22 passes with two interceptions and a 27.3 passer rating. A.J. Green was held to two catches for 30 yards.
–RUSH DEFENSE: A — The Bengals were overpowered. They gained only 46 yards, averaged only 2.3 yards per carry and didn’t have a run longer than 8 yards. The Bengals went for it on fourth-and-1 at their own 38 in the first half. The Vikings stuffed them and turned it into a field goal.
–SPECIAL TEAMS: A — Kai Forbath made all four extra points and both field-goal attempts. He ricocheted a 53-yarder off the left upright, so he was lucky as well as good. Punter Ryan Quigley had three of five punts downed inside the 20-yard line, including one at the 2-yard line for the third straight week.
–COACHING: A — Kendricks’ pick-six came out of a new wrinkle that head coach Mike Zimmer came up with for the vaunted Double A Gap blitz package that he developed as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator from 2008-13. Kendricks showed blitz, dropped and was never seen by Dalton. Offensively, coordinator Pat Shurmur had a nice mix of runs (34) and passes (25). He varied his formations. The Vikings went up 24-0 when Shurmur went to a five-wide look on second-and-16. With the Bengals so spread out, Keenum’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs was relatively easy.
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(photo courtesy of Vikings.com)