It’s been six years since Minnesota last claimed the NFC North crown, and three since their last playoff appearance. But the wait could be over this season, because with head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings are on the rise.
There is a clear reason for the boundless optimism in Minnesota. In his debut season as a head coach, Mike Zimmer led the Vikings to a 7-9 season with a young, talented core of emerging players. ESPN listed the Vikings at 7th on their 2015 Future Power Ranking; the top non-playoff team from last year.
Can Teddy Bridgewater and the Minnesota Vikings become kings in the North?
Not since Daunte Culpepper have the Vikings had a true franchise quarterback. But they traded back into the first round last year to select Bridgewater. Bridgewater quickly took over as the starter and finished the season with 2919 yards, 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a completion rate of 64.4%; 3rd highest by a rookie in NFL history.
Bridgewater’s solid rookie season was partly the work of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner; a noted quarterback guru. While Turner was the head coach in San Diego Philip Rivers led the AFC in passing twice in 2008 and 2009. Could we see Bridgewater leading the NFC in passing in the couple of seasons?
With tight end Kyle Rudolph healthy and a bona fide deep threat added in the form of receiver Mike Wallace, Bridgewater will have a better supporting cast this year. The offensive line is still a weak spot, but does have some talent in the form of draft day steal T.J. Clemmings.
Adrian Peterson also returns after missing virtually a whole year. The last time Peterson missed a season he rushed for 2097 yards and was named league MVP. With opposing defenses once again forced to scheme for Peterson Bridgewater will face less pressure and should improve even more.
Peterson should also improve because of Bridgewater. Peterson has never played with a franchise quarterback in Minnesota, and if Bridgewater grows fast and makes the passing game a threat, Peterson should get more big play opportunities.
But Minnesota’s biggest improvement came on defense as Zimmer orchestrated an impressive turnaround. In 2013 the Vikings finished 31st against the pass and dead last for points allowed. Last year, under Zimmer, they improved to 7th in the league against the pass and 11th in points allowed.
This season Zimmer has an even more talented defense at his disposal. Linebackers Anthony Barr and second round pick Eric Kendricks, along with defensive end Everson Griffen, give the Vikings a formidable pass rush. Griffen was last year’s breakout star after leading the team with 12 sacks, ninth most in the league.
Meanwhile, the young, talented secondary could rival Seattle’s infamous ‘Legion of Boom’ in the next couple of seasons, giving Minnesota an edge when facing Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler twice a year. Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and first round pick Trae Waynes are backed up by safety Harrison Smith, who is knocking on the door of the Pro Bowl after five interceptions and three sacks.
Last season the Vikings failed to win a game against a team with a winning record. However, if injuries hadn’t been an issue and Peterson hadn’t been suspended, Minnesota could have finished with an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. Four of their losses from last season came down to three points or less.
In Week 7 they lost by a single point to Buffalo on the road. In Week 12 they were just three points away from beating perennial divisional power Green Bay. The Vikings were one of only six teams to hold Green Bay to less than 25 points.
In Weeks 15 and 16 they were two points away from beating both Detroit and Miami on the road. Had Minnesota won those games they would have secured a wild card spot.
This year they will face eight playoff teams from last season drawing the NFC West and the AFC West. But with a healthy offense, a breakout defense, and Adrian Peterson back, expect Minnesota to challenge for a wild card.