Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Mike Zimmer jumped the gun when he gave his team “Beat Green Bay” shirts before their Week 11 matchup with the rival Packers. Although they’d won five straight games and led the NFC North at that point of the season, many wondered — “Are the Vikings ready to challenge Green Bay for the division title?”.

The answer was a resounding “no.” Minnesota was blown out at home, losing 30-13 to a Packers team that had struggled offensively all year. They played more like the team that was embarrassed Week 1 than the team that dominated opponents on the ground and with an up-and-coming defense. And after losing two of their three games following that dreary November night, they looked more “pretender” than “contender.”

In three short weeks, though, Mike Zimmer has learned the value of the proverbial bulletin board. It’s an age-old metaphor in sports; coaches pin negative quotes up in the locker room or play sound bites to motivate their players before games. Listen to what the media and fans are saying, and use that as fuel to your fire when you’re on the field. Some players — especially veterans — don’t always respond to that method, but for a young team in Minnesota, Zimmer’s tactics seem to be working.

They entered last week as heavy underdogs against a red-hot Arizona Cardinals team, but found a way to not only keep the game close, but competitive. If not for Teddy Bridgewater’s fumble on the last offensive snap, the Vikings could have easily sent the game into overtime. Their surprising performance came without three of their top defensive players and in the face of public doubt. Instead of buying t-shirts or feeding the swirling hype, Zimmer put the onus on his players to believe in themselves despite the negative noise:

“Really, when teams believe – everybody in the world thought we were going to get killed by Arizona and we went out there and we played and fought – and sometimes you have to have something that happens within your football team, that you can believe. You can believe these young guys are going to go in there and play and play good. You can believe no matter how much we’re up against the wall that we can continue to fight. That was kind of my message all week long. This is the team we have to be, this is who we are, we have to prepare with the same focus and I was on their rear ends pretty hard this week.”

The Vikings continue to find inspiration in those who doubt or question their ability to win important games. After yesterday’s convincing 38-14 victory over the Chicago Bears, Zimmer took to the locker room to congratulate his team, delivering a strong message much like the one Bill Parcells did in 2003. Like his mentor and friend, Zimmer didn’t shy away from calling out the media’s assertion that the Vikings can’t “win when it matters” (here’s looking at you, Rodney Harrison):

“Everybody gets a game ball because they can’t ever call you a loser again. They can never call you that. Because we’re winners from now on.”

Now, Minnesota has its sites set on the NFC North title. They’re almost guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, as noted by FiveThirtyEight. The sports statistic website gives the Vikings better than a 99 percent chance to make it into the playoffs. With a win against the New York Giants next week, they’re in. But Zimmer’s focus is beating the Packers and winning the division, just as it was nearly five weeks ago.

In today’s world, where information and commentary are available with the simple press of a button, it’s easy to listen to the outside noise. “Is Teddy Bridgewater a franchise quarterback?”. “Injuries will decimate this defense.”. “Can they win when Adrian Peterson isn’t producing?”.

Teddy Bridgewater throws four touchdowns and runs for another. Check. The defense sacks Jay Cutler five times and forces two turnovers. Check. Jerick McKinnon catches four passes for 78 yards in place of an injured Peterson. Check. They answered the call and did so in the face of mounting pessimism. They’re not winners yet — Minnesota still needs a Lombardi Trophy — but the Vikings are well on their way to shedding their title as “losers.” That starts with Zimmer, who knows just how to motivate his team.

Let’s hope in two weeks, he leaves the Green Bay shirts at home; the Vikings don’t need them this time around.