The final score was 24-16 but it wasn’t that close, with the Ravens adding a meaningless touchdown as time expired Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings trudged, slugged, and elbowed their way to a home victory in a game they were expected to win, improving to 5-2 and taking sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
No, it wasn’t pretty. Case Keenum was erratic much of the day, making more bad throws than good ones and finishing with only 188 passing yards and an interception. The Vikings ran the ball well, albeit against a bottom-feeding NFL rush defense, yet routinely stalled in Baltimore territory and were forced to settle for field goals. And yes, Kai Forbath was a perfect six for six on those field goals, but continued his troubling trend of missing extra points, which is seeming increasingly likely to rear its head at an inopportune time in the future.
And then there’s this: the Ravens are bad. On its surface, their 3-4 record indicates mediocrity, but those three wins have come against the Browns, Bengals, and Derek Carr-less Raiders, and the team the Vikings faced was dismantled by injury at numerous positions. Joe Flacco is playing the worst football of his career. It’s a team the Minnesota Vikings should — and must — beat.
Here’s the thing: they did. Lost in any discussion about style points is the timeless and ever-present reality of the NFL that the final score when the clock strikes zero is the only thing that truly matters about a game. The winning. We surround it with context and statistical window dressing, but the W’s and L’s are all that matter, at the proverbial — and literal — end of the day. It’s all coaches care about, it’s all fans care about, and it’s all we remember (unless I’m mistaken, and you often find yourself looking back fondly on Atlanta’s scintillating offensive showcase in the first half of last year’s Super Bowl).
So call me simple, but I’ll take the winning. I’ll take beating the team you’re supposed to beat and putting yourselves in the driver’s seat of the division. I’ll take a championship-caliber defense with a ferocious pass rush, a run-stopping ability that’s rising from mediocre to an elite level, and more game-changing players than you can count on one hand. I’ll take the Anthony Barr renaissance, the weekly disappearing act by the opposing team’s top wide receiver, the once-obsolete running game that has become an asset, and the ever-sound special teams. I’ll take winning ugly, because it’s winning.
After the Vikings beat Green Bay to improve to 4-2 last week, it was natural to look at the upcoming schedule, see a hapless Ravens team at home followed by the winless Browns in London, and pencil in a 6-2 record at the bye. This is the type of unborn chicken counting that often turns out disastrous in the NFL; no matter what they say, professional athletes have the same human tendency to overlook inferior opponents as fans do (albeit in a less boisterous manner). The Vikings were able to overcome that human tendency on Sunday, and they should be applauded for it. There will be another test next week at a neutral site in a foreign continent. If you don’t think even winless teams are dangerous, you only need to look back to Week 6 and ask the Denver Broncos their opinion on it.
So without looking ahead, we can still see it as it stands; the Vikings are 5-2 without their starting running back, either of their preferred quarterbacks (for all but one game), and with a two-game running absence from their top wide receiver. It hasn’t always been pretty, but more often than not it has been effective, and that’s the only thing that should draw the attention of the team’s fans. Even before the injuries, this was supposed to be a grind-it-out team. It was supposed to be a team that relied on suffocating defense and rock solid special teams, with the hope of an improved rushing attack and an efficient pass game. By in large, that’s what it’s been.
The formula is working. And whether it’s Case, Teddy, or Sam under center, the formula will be the same for the duration of the season. It might look like winning ugly, but to me, it just looks like winning.