It would be charming and too easy to make the Vikings development into a playoff team about the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater or the redemption of Adrian Peterson or the long road toward a job well-deserved traveled by head coach Mike Zimmer.
In truth, it’s about all three of those factors, and many more.
The Vikings clinched a playoff berth, and have a shot at the NFC North title next week agains the Packers thanks to their 49-17 win over the Giants. But getting to 10-5 this year was a cumulative process, and the steady building may give them a chance to be viable for more than a single season.
It’s an impressive progression after their house of cards playoff run of 2012 fell apart (Christian Ponder was not a playoff quarterback, and isn’t even an NFL quarterback at the moment). But after bottoming out at 5-10-1 the following year and firing coach Leslie Frazier, they were able to start fresh with a quarterback who appears trustworthy, and a number of young parts.
So while getting Peterson back and playing at a high level certainly helps, Bridgewater having the year to develop without him was a crucial component for them to arrive at this point.
Bridgewater is not such a player who can do it all on his own, but he’s also smart enough to know what he can’t do, and there were a number of occasions Sunday against the Giants when he pulled it down and didn’t throw, which is often the hardest lesson for a young quarterback to learn.
Zimmer has been a steady hand and the right guy for the process, as they have young cornerstones on defense (put in place by General Manager Rick Spielman) who help provide as much of a set of training wheels for Bridgewater as Peterson does.
It’s a stable base, and after watching a thin facade fall apart previously, the difference is apparent.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. The good news for the Vikings is that they have a good enough running game to keep them out of bad down-and-distance situations.
The bad news is unless they can play from ahead, they can struggle because of an offensive line that needs work. For all the strides they’ve made this year, that’s still a real area of weakness for them, across the board. While left tackle Matt Kalil gets a lot of stick because he’s the left tackle and the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft and perhaps hasn’t played to the level anticipated when you’re picked that high, he also hadn’t missed a snap in his career until a late injury.
But the problems there are multiple, as having to replace a pair of injured starters in the preseason (center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt) has stretched them too thin.
And Bridgewater doesn’t help at times because he’s not the quickest to get the ball out of his hand, but the problem begins in front of him, and Spielman has to know it’s one of the top items on his offseason to-do list.
2. Yes, the Giants offense is a real mess. Playing without the suspended Odell Beckham Jr. might cause that.
But they’ve looked out of sync with the ball all year, from their time-management issues and mysterious throws by a quarterback who ought to know better. In many respects, they never seemed to have recovered from being without the injured wide receiver Victor Cruz, even when Beckham was eligible.
3. Of course, that lack of depth also speaks to the overall talent of the roster, and makes you wonder why there are so many stories about the future of coach Tom Coughlin and not as many about the future of General Manager Jerry Reese.
That’s not to say Reese deserves to be fired. One of the benefits of working for a mature organization like the Giants is that knee-jerk reactions are less frequent than they are in most places. And the reality is, they’ve lost a lot of games from high-profile players to injuries including defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, left tackle Will Beatty and middle linebacker Jon Beason, among others.
But the problems they have aren’t the kind that can simply go away with a coaching change, and it would be wrong for Coughlin to be scapegoated alone, if scapegoating needs to happen.
4. If Giants linebacker J.T. Thomas gets fined for throwing a punch and getting ejected, he needs to get a rebate from Beckham.
The swat he took in the fourth quarter when the frustration was evident was about a tenth of the ear-holing Beckham gave Panthers cornerback Josh Norman a week ago, and his ejection was clearly a reaction.
Officials were buttoned up and on the lookout for any shenanigans, and Thomas just made it easy on them, as no officiating crew wanted to be the one getting second-guessed or called out this week.
5. The Packers will obviously be motivated after the clubbing they took from the Cardinals Sunday. The question is whether they’re good enough to do anything about it against the Vikings next Sunday night for the division title.
As counter-intuitive as it might have sounded at the beginning of the season, it’s hard to figure out what the Packers do better than the Vikings at the moment, and what gives them an advantage other than playing at Lambeau Field.