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Zulgad: Vikings clinch NFC North title, but, as usual, it don’t come easy

By Judd Zulgad

Very little has come easy for these Vikings, so perhaps it was fitting that the 17-point lead Minnesota took into the fourth quarter Sunday night in Green Bay eventually dwindled to seven and left the Packers with a last-second opportunity to attempt a Hail Mary pass.

But when cornerback Xavier Rhodes reached into the mass of humanity in front of him and batted the ball to the Lambeau Field turf, the Vikings had earned their 11th victory of the season and first NFC North crown since 2009. The win also was the Vikings’ first in Green Bay since the same season and broke a six-game winless streak against the Packers.

The victory came on a night when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater gave the Vikings almost nothing. It came on a night when Cordarrelle Patterson, his team’s lead cut to seven in the final quarter, raced 71 yards on a kickoff return only to be stripped of the ball by Packers kickers Mason Crosby at the 31-yard line. It came on a night when the NFL’s rushing leader, Adrian Peterson, had to leave the game because of back spasms and nearly lost a fumble upon his return in the fourth quarter.

There was plenty to nitpick.

But ultimately here’s what matters most: The Vikings ended the Packers’ four-year run as division champions and will play host to the Seattle Seahawks at noon Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium.

You want a reason to worry? The Seahawks will arrive in Minneapolis just over a month after departing TCF Bank Stadium with a far-too-easy 38-7 victory. Seattle also ended the regular season by crushing the Arizona Cardinals, 36-6.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer will start trying to draw up a game plan to beat Seattle on Monday – having linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith for the entire game will be a good start – but late Sunday night he attempted to answer a question he normally would avoid.

Has success come sooner than expected for a team that went 7-9 in Zimmer’s first season as a head coach in 2014? Zimmer, remember, was passed over for head coaching jobs in this league at least six times because teams thought he wouldn’t be a good fit.

“When you win 11 games in a season, you’ve had a heck of a year,” Zimmer said, giving his response plenty of thought. “Did we get here faster? I don’t know. I have pretty high expectations. I think we played well throughout this football season. I don’t know, maybe (it did come sooner).”

The Vikings’ performance Sunday was far from flawless, but it was superior to the effort they gave in a 30-13 loss to the Packers on Nov. 22 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Having won five consecutive games before playing Green Bay the first time, the Vikings entered with significant momentum and were facing a rival that was struggling. The Packers had opened the season 6-0, but brought a three-game losing streak to Minneapolis.

The Vikings, however, looked like the stage was too big for them in that late-afternoon start that was seen by much of the country. The Packers remained a very flawed bunch entering Sunday, meaning the Vikings again had a good chance to win, but would they be intimidated a second time?

The answer was no.

Zimmer came out with an aggressive game plan to make sure the Packers knew this would not be a repeat performance. On the third play from scrimmage, Bridgewater threw deep for running back Jerick McKinnon down the right side. Bridgewater overthrew McKinnon, or the Vikings could have held an early 7-0 lead.

The Vikings set up for a punt on fourth-and-3 from their own 38-yard line, but Adam Thielen took the snap and raced 41 yards to the Green Bay 21. The drive ended with a 39-yard field goal from Blair Walsh that made it 3-0.

“We didn’t come here to finish second, so let it loose,” Zimmer said. “Take our swings and if we get knocked down, we get knocked down.”

The Vikings did get knocked down a few times in the fourth quarter, but they also got back up and held on. As usual, there will be no style points awarded for the win but that’s the story of this team.

Another story has been Bridgewater’s up-and-down play. The second-year QB had put together three solid games since a terrible performance against the Seahawks, but that streak ended Sunday.

He finished 10 of 19 for 99 yards, was sacked three times and had an awful 45.7 passer rating. He also threw an interception with his left hand in the third quarter that only didn’t result in disaster because Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ fumble on the ensuing series was returned by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for a touchdown and a 20-3 lead.

“The left handed throw was … you don’t even want to know what I told him on that one,” Zimmer said, describing Bridgewater’s performance as spotty. “I thought he rushed things a little bit today.

“I thought he was getting out of the pocket a little bit too much. There were times he ended up running into sacks because he was moving too much. He just needs to settle down and play like he’s been playing. We’re going to need him to play good as we continue forward.”

Bridgewater can’t have a repeat performance against Seattle next Sunday or the Vikings’ playoff run will be a short one. That will be a focus starting Monday.

Late Sunday, as they made the short flight home from Green Bay, it’s likely Zimmer and his team was simply enjoying the fact that the NFC North championship was finally returning home with them.

The post Zulgad: Vikings clinch NFC North title, but, as usual, it don’t come easy appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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