Written By Sam Ekstrom (ColdOmaha.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
Takeaways, defensive scores, special teams plays and efficient offense. The formula that led the Minnesota Vikings to a 5-0 start — and abandoned them during their 2-8 late-season swoon — returned on New Year’s Day as Minnesota took an early lead and never looked back, soundly beating the Chicago Bears 38-10 in a game that featured a dangerous protest in the US Bank Stadium rafters for the final three quarters (which is detailed here).
As for the football, it was all Minnesota from the opening kickoff. The Vikings took just three minutes, 24 seconds to drive the field and convert their fourth opening-drive touchdown of the season. Jerick McKinnon took a 16-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to get the scoring started. It was his first of two scores on the day, giving him four touchdowns for the season.
His 89 yards on the ground gave him 539 for season, an unexpectedly low total for the team’s leading rusher. Minnesota upped their season average to 3.2 yards per carry with their season-high 124 yards on the ground.
A more legitimate accomplishment came from Kyle Rudolph, who set career highs in receptions and yardage with 11 grabs for 117 yards. He also set the team’s single-season receptions record with 83 and concluded the season with 840 yards — a career high by over 300 yards.
Rudolph was outstanding Sunday, showing some of his grittiest running of the season after many of his 11 catches, including a broken tackle to score a 22-yard touchdown that gave the Vikings a 17-0 lead. The tight end’s health and production might be one of the brightest spots in the passing game this season. It was evident early in the year that Rudolph and Bradford had good chemistry as the new quarterback targeted the sixth-year veteran often, ending the season with 132 passes in Rudolph’s direction. “It seemed like we clicked immediately,” said Bradford after the game. “He’s just really easy to read as far as his body language and routes. Obviously he’s a big target. He’s got a really big catch radius, and obviously that’s what you’re looking for as a quarterback.”
Bradford completed 63 percent of his passes to Rudolph this season — actually 8 percent lower than his season-long completion percentage of 71.6 percent, a new NFL record. “If you set an NFL record, that’s pretty good,” said Zimmer. “Usually you have a pretty good year.”
It’s an honor for Bradford, to be sure. But it’s a record that stemmed from a highly conservative offensive approach that resulted from a porous offensive line. To his credit, Bradford made the most of a bad circumstance, getting the ball out quickly and accurately in the face of immense pressure most of the season. Despite an interception in the third quarter, Bradford saved one of his best games for last with 250 yards passing, three touchdowns and no sacks taken. His pocket awareness seemed to improve as the season progressed, and he became more comfortable moving around within and outside the pocket.
Bradford enters an offseason of uncertainty as Teddy Bridgewater continues to rehab from a serious knee injury and could return next training camp to compete for the starting job, but Bradford has built up a great deal of equity by starting 15 games and throwing 20 touchdowns against just five interceptions. One of the biggest knocks on Bradford before the season was his durability, but he proved to be as tough as nails despite taking numerous hits that might’ve maimed a more fragile passer.
Well-suited to run Pat Shurmur’s offense and well-liked in the locker room, Bradford has made a strong case to return next season as the starter. “I’ve enjoyed being a part of this locker room,” said Bradford. “I think the guys in that locker room were really the main reason why I was able to play the way I did this year.”
As for the defense, they ended the season as they started, harassing the passer — in this case a combination of Matt Barkley and David Fales — and turning in game-changing defensive plays. The Vikings intercepted two passes and recovered three fumbles, one of which went to the house as Everson Griffen scooped and scored from 20 yards out following a strip sack.
It might have been the final game in purple for Chad Greenway, who made two tackles in the finale. The long-time Vikings linebacker was last to be announce during the pregame pyrotechnics and received a standing ovation when he was shown on the video board prior to the game’s final play. Greenway mimicked his signature sack dance and smiled for the fans. “It was a day that I catalogued in my memory from the time I got up to now,” said Greenway. “I enjoyed every minute of it, which has been part of my plan since Day 1 of the season started.”
Greenway said he would hold off on a retirement decision for several weeks, but admitted the decision felt different than last season, when he expressed immediately that he wanted to return and see what the team could accomplish.
The linebacker is one of several defensive players that may either be retiring or moving on next season. Terence Newman, Captain Munnerlyn are pending free agents in the secondary, while defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd and Brian Robison are owed large sums of money. These decisions will be broken down in greater detail in the coming weeks at ColdOmaha.com.
Minnesota finished the season winning just three of its last 11, culminating one of the the most bizarre seasons in Vikings history. The starting quarterback and future Hall of Fame running back underwent serious knee surgeries. Twelve different offensive linemen played at some point. The offensive coordinator resigned after seven games. The team airplane was stranded on a tarmac in Appleton, Wisc.
But, as Brian Robison said after the game, it wasn’t as wild as 2010. “Well, US Bank Stadium didn’t collapse,” he said, beginning a list of 2010’s most memorable storylines. “We didn’t play a home game in Detroit. We didn’t spend four days in Philly. Coach didn’t get fired, so that is always good. We brought in Randy [Moss] and then shipped off Randy. That was a crazy year.”
Robison’s argument goes to show the unpredictability of the NFL and how the Vikings, once again, fell victim to its randomness. In both years, the Vikings entered the season with a strong core of talent, an apparently secure head coach and a successful season to build on. Both limped to the finish and were left wondering where the season went so terribly wrong. “It’s a good win,” said Zimmer, “but it’s tough that that’s the end of it.”