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Zulgad: Vikings’ latest victory shows they have blueprint for postseason success

By Judd Zulgad

The Vikings did far more than win a game on Sunday in Atlanta.

Minnesota’s 14-9 victory over the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, also served as an announcement to the rest of the NFL that it has a blueprint for playoff success.

Since the Vikings’ loss at Pittsburgh in Week 2, Mike Zimmer’s team has passed a series of tests. Victories over Chicago, Green Bay, Baltimore and Cleveland before the bye established a four-game winning streak but none were overly impressive. Beating the Packers might have been, if quarterback Aaron Rodgers hadn’t been forced to leave early because of injury.

The first game in which one believed the Vikings might face a major test came two weeks ago, when they played host to the upstart Los Angeles Rams. Both teams entered with 7-2 records and when the Rams scored on their opening drive it appeared the Vikings might be in trouble. It was the last time you got that feeling as the Vikings scored 24 unanswered points.

Four days later, the Vikings won 30-23 on Thanksgiving Day at Detroit in the start of a three-game road trip. That led to the Vikings’ latest big test: A matchup against the defending NFC champion Falcons, who had scored 95 points in winning three in a row.

The Falcons entered with the NFL’s best offense on third down, converting 48 percent of their attempts. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFL’s MVP in 2016, was coming off a win against Tampa Bay in which he completed 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns to standout receiver Julio Jones.

The Vikings’ defense might be one of the best in the NFL but they were about to be tested. As they have done all season, they passed the test without a problem. Flying to the ball all day, and having hobbled Pro Bowl corner Xavier Rhodes on Jones throughout much of the afternoon, the Vikings gave up three Matt Bryant field goals and nothing more.

Jones caught two passes for 24 yards, both season-lows, and that outstanding third-down offense went 1-for-10 against the league’s third-best defense on that down. Ryan completed 16 of 29 passes for 173 yards and while he wasn’t sacked, he was never able to get comfortable in the pocket. The completion and yardage totals were both season lows for the veteran.

The Vikings’ Case Keenum-led offense, meanwhile, had two extremely impressive touchdown drives, including a run-heavy, nine-play series in the second quarter that ended with a 2-yard pass to Jerick McKinnon and a season-high 15-play drive that was capped by a 6-yard strike to Kyle Rudolph in the fourth quarter that erased the Falcons’ two-point lead.

Keenum, like Ryan, had to spend plenty of time on the move – he was sacked twice – but he has proven on numerous occasions that he has the ability to avoid pressure. Keenum was a perfect 13-of-13 for 117 yards in the second half.

The formula the Vikings used to extend their winning streak to eight games on Sunday felt like exactly what they are going to need to do in the playoffs. Defense is the starting point for any success this team is going to have come January; Keenum and the offense need to do their part, but their most important job will be playing smart, not committing any turnovers and holding onto the ball for as long as possible to keep the defense fresh.

“I think they believe,” Zimmer said of his players. “I think they believed before, but the more you win and you go into somebody else’s stadium and you win against a good football team, it just continues to add to your confidence as we go forward. They were happy in the locker room, but they understand that we haven’t really done anything yet. We still haven’t won the division, we’ve still got a ways to go and playing in December here is going to be really important.”

The Vikings now sit at 10-2, giving them four-game cushions over second-place Detroit and Green Bay in the NFC North. Minnesota’s final four games are at Carolina, home against Cincinnati, at Green Bay and home against Chicago.

The big regular-season tests are passed. Maintaining a high-level of play, getting as good of playoff seeding as possible and keeping everyone healthy are the most important things now for the Vikings.

Not surprisingly, Zimmer downplayed any talk that long-term goals might come into play for his team.

“Not right now,” he said. “We talked about a five-game stretch here. These guys are pretty smart. They know what’s at stake now as we continue to move forward. We have to make sure that we continue to look toward this particular week that we play. Then when we play that one, go onto the next week. It doesn’t do any good for us to look five weeks down the road or anything like that.”

Zimmer is right, of course, but given the number of tests the Vikings have passed of late it’s difficult not to begin projecting what the future might hold.

The post Zulgad: Vikings’ latest victory shows they have blueprint for postseason success appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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