Opinion

Vikings’ Top-5 Individual Performances in 2016

Yes, the Minnesota Vikings missed the 2016 postseason. And yes, it was an excruciatingly painful season to endure. But, as we have already noted during previous Top-5 lists, there were a number of standout efforts throughout the season.

The Vikings may have finished with an 8-8 record, but that didn’t stop them from racking up a bevy of outstanding single-game performances. In fact, one could argue that ranking only five individual efforts (plus an honorable mention) does not actually do justice to the number of outstanding games that Minnesota’s 53-man roster produced.

Given that the 2016 season saw four Vikings (initially) named to the Pro Bowl (Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, Cordarrelle Patterson), included breakout seasons from Adam Thielen and Danielle Hunter (if his six-sack rookie year wasn’t enough, that is) and played host to Sam Bradford’s record-breaking season, it should come as little surprise that Minnesota’s rollercoaster campaign included an impressive list of individual game performances.

Also, be sure to check out our previous rankings, and keep an eye out for the remaining articles in our series highlighting the most thrilling Vikings moments from the 2016 season:

Basic Criteria: 1. Level of Difficulty 2. Game and/or Situational Importance 3. Entertainment Value

HM. DE EVERSON GRIFFEN’S ‘SACK TRICK’ VS. CAR

Minnesota’s first five matchups, a stretch that produced historically absurd defensive totals and a 5-0 record, was absolutely jam-packed with outstanding individual efforts. Among those was Everson Griffen’s three-sack performance against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, which he was deservedly honored for through being named NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

The now two-time Pro Bowl defensive end hammered Newton in the backfield for losses of 12, 10 and 15, respectively, amounting to a ridiculous total of 37 yards lost. The veteran edge-rusher also recorded nine hurries and four quarterback hits, making his presence known throughout the Vikings’ defensive demolition of a suspect Carolina offensive line.

Griffen’s biggest knock, however, was less about what his game lacked and more a reflection of the damage his teammates did as well. The Vikings defense collected eight sacks and 12 quarterback hits over the course of the game, making his specific impact less memorable — and potentially the most debatable Honorable Mention entry of this series (given the multitude of worthy candidates listed below).

5. WR STEFON DIGGS’ U.S. BANK BREAKOUT VS. GB (W2)

Coming off a defense-heavy Week 1 victory over the Tennessee Titans on the road, there was an almost universal concern that Minnesota would open its brand new stadium in the worst way imaginable — with a loss to the Green Bay Packers (ew). The Vikings had recently lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season due to injury, watched veteran Shaun Hill struggle to lead a consistent offense and the recently-acquired Sam Bradford remained both an unknown as well as, perceivably, limited due to lack of familiarity in then-offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system.

But, wide receiver Stefon Diggs remained unfazed by the glaring reasons the Vikings should lose their home opener, producing the most dominant effort of his career en route to a victory. The second-year fifth-round pick out of Maryland recorded nine receptions on 11 targets (81.8 catch percentage), a career-best 182 receiving yards and a 25-yard, third-quarter touchdown to open up a 10-point lead for Minnesota that would ultimately prove just enough to earn a 17-14 win in the U.S. Bank Stadium regular season opener.

Diggs excelled on short, intermediate and deep route combinations, gashing the Packers for seven catches of 10-plus yards — including a pair of 40-plus-yard strikes — while asserting himself as a clear-cut No. 1 target.

4. CB XAVIER RHODES PICKS PALMER TWICE VS. ARZ

If nothing else, 2016 will go down in Vikings history as the year Xavier Rhodes finally established himself as a shutdown cornerback. Rhodes not only definitely earned himself the sought-after title, however, as he also became a legitimate weapon as well — something Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer learned the hard way.

Rhodes, who had flashed elite potential throughout his first three seasons in Minnesota, put together a strong coverage performance — consistently successful defending both Michael Floyd and John Brown — and made the veteran Cardinals signal-caller pay for throwing in his direction on two separate occasions.

The fourth-year cover man tallied a pair of interceptions, the first of which came in as the No. 2-ranked defensive play on an earlier list. Rhodes’ second-quarter pick of Palmer turned Arizona’s likely scoring drive into six points the other way, as he jumped in front of Brown and returned the ball 100 yards to put the Vikings up 20-10 with a few minutes remaining in the half.

For his next trick, Rhodes turned in a diving interception on a deep overthrow intended for Floyd. Both forced turnovers helped save Minnesota’s season — for the time being, that is — while also playing an integral role in the cornerback’s first career Pro Bowl nomination.

3. CB XAVIER RHODES SHUTS DOWN BECKHAM VS. NYG

Rhodes’ two-turnover effort against the Cardinals certainly warrants representation on this list, but it pales in comparison to his breakout game against the New York Giants. Having returned from injury to silence Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in Week 3, Rhodes elected to double-down in Week 4 with a 60-minute handcuffing of Odell Beckham Jr.

While his excellent performance against Arizona was more box score friendly, Rhodes shutting down the three-time Pro Bowler was far-and-away his most impressive showing of the year. Minnesota’s No. 1 cornerback held Beckham Jr. to the lowest receiving yardage total (23) and second-lowest reception total (3) of a 43-game career that includes seven matchups with 10-plus catches and 19 100-yard outings.

To add further perspective, the only statistically comparable single-game totals turned in by the iconic Giants wide receiver are his second career game (2 catches; 4 targets; 28 yards) and his dreadful postseason debut against the Packers (ew) this past weekend (4 catches; 3 drops; 11 targets; 28 yards).

Considering the circumstances, Rhodes’ Week 4 cornerbacking clinic objectively falls to No. 2 on OBJ’s worst professional games behind his self-destructive introduction to the NFL playoffs. But, the Vikings cornerback remains the only defensive back to hold Beckham Jr. under 25 yards receiving despite being assigned coverage for eight of his nine targets (Terence Newman passed his only test as well).

One final note: Rhodes also intercepted an Eli Manning overthrow intended for Beckham Jr. and returned the pass 29 yards — surpassing the Giants No. 1 receiver’s game total of 23 yards by six. Bravo, sir, bravo.

2. WR ADAM THIELEN’S 200-YARD DAY VS. GB (W16)

Weeks 15 and 16 marked the climax of Minnesota’s collapse, as the Indianapolis Colts and Packers (ew) eliminated the Vikings from postseason contention via a pair of losses in which a once impenetrable defense allowed 72 points — 24 percent of the unit’s season-long total of 307. The defense was putrid, sure, but Minnesota’s offense was potentially even worse. Indianapolis, which ranked 22nd in average points allowed (24.5) in 2016, held Bradford and Co. to six points before Minnesota put up an uninspiring 25 points — 12 of which came during the final five minutes with Green Bay (ew) having already hung a 38-spot on the scoreboard — against a pitiful defensive secondary.

Many Vikings went out to lunch for a few weeks toward the end of the season, but Adam Thielen continued to clock an overtime-level work week. The Minnesota State-Mankato product recorded a handful of notable individual efforts throughout the 2016 season, but his 200-yard game amidst the Vikings’ season going down the drain at Lambeau Field (ew) was his finest.

Thielen hauled in 12 of 15 targets (80.0 catch percentage) for 202 yards and a pair of scores to notch the fifth 200-yard game in Vikings franchise history by way of multiple circus catches and Minnesota’s longest offensive play of the season — a 71-yard touchdown to give fans hope midway through the second quarter.

1. QB SAM BRADFORD’S FLAWLESS DEBUT VS. GB (W2)

Vikings fans have endured years of horrid quarterback play following Daunte Culpepper’s catastrophic knee injury back in 2005. With exception to Brett Favre’s miraculous 2009 campaign — which, per standard, ended horrifically — fans of the Purple and Gold had been forced to justify the potential of signal-callers such as Brad Johnson, Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson, Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel prior to the 2014 first-round selection of Bridgewater.

Bridgewater, despite leading the Vikings to a 17-11 record as a starter, failed to convince the entirety of Vikings nation that he was, in fact, the long-awaited answer at quarterback. His season-ending knee injury explosion was still met with universal cynicism regarding Minnesota’s 2016 postseason chances, however.

Considering the absolutely dreadful list of quarterback spot starts in recent Vikings lore — Josh Freeman’s historically awful first (and last) start with the Vikings, a 20-of-53 (37.7%) effort and 23-7 loss to the Giants on Monday Night Football; Ponder’s 22-of-44 (50%) “last stand” and 42-10 loss at Green Bay (ew) in relief of an injured Bridgwater — Vikings Territory wasn’t exactly optimistic about Rick Spielman trading a first-rounder and a conditional mid-round selection in 2017 for a season-long replacement passer best-known for tearing ACLs.

Alas, following Hill’s honorable Week 1 victory over Tennessee in which the team failed to score an offensive touchdown, Bradford represented the only hope for a competitive 2016 season. Furthermore, barring the newly-acquired signal-caller exploding onto the scene with a difference-making debut, the Vikings, as previously noted, were also set to lose their U.S. Bank Stadium regular season opener to the Packers (ew).

But, just 15 days removed from finishing up the 2016 preseason as the Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback, Bradford delivered arguably the best single-game performance of his professional career en route to a completely unexpected 17-14 win over Green Bay (ew) in his first appearance with the Vikings.

Bradford, who was officially announced as the starter on the morning of the Vikings’ Week 2 matchup with the Packers (ew), completed 22-of-31 (70.1%) for 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also turned in a 121.2 passer rating which, at the time, was the third-best figure of his professional career (123.1 rating against Houston during Week 5) as well as a 9.23 yards-per-attempt, the fourth-best average in 78 games.

The 2016 season did not end as heroically as it began for the Minnesota quarterback, but Bradford’s outstanding Vikings debut will be remembered fondly as one of the greatest circumstantial performances in franchise history — with Entry No. 1 of the U.S. Bank Stadium game log serving as the ultimate reminder.

Others Considered: LB Eric Kendricks vs. TEN (6 Tackles, 77-Yard INT TD); DE Danielle Hunter vs. TEN (1 Sack, 24-Yard FUM REC TD); WR Adam Thielen vs. HOU (7 catches, 127 Yards, TD); WR Stefon Diggs vs. WAS (13 catches, 164 Yards); CB Xavier Rhodes Shuts Down WR DeAndre Hopkins vs. HOU; DE Danielle Hunter vs. DAL (2 Sacks); LB Eric Kendricks vs. GB (W2) [11 Tackles, 2.5 Sacks]; TE Kyle Rudolph vs. CHI (W17) [11 Catches, 117 Yards, TD]; NT Linval Joseph vs. CHI (W8) [Too Much Destruction for Statistics]; CB Xavier Rhodes Shuts Down WR Kelvin Benjamin vs. CAR

Vote for the most memorable individual single-game effort from the 2016 season. And, as always, let us know if we got the rankings right in the comment section below!

 

NFL Film Clips courtesy of NFL Game Pass; Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

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BJ Reidell

Captain Content and Superior Half of About the Labor: A Minnesota Vikings Podcast. Human Flamethrower on Twitter @RobertReidell.

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Ole
Ole
4 years ago

gotta go with Zach Line here BJ

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint one highlight of Zach Line’s 2016 season. But a single play stands out, Zach’s career best five yard carry in the loss to Washington in week 10. Such a rare event that if one were to search NFL.com, ESPN, and Minnesota Vikings.com you wouldn’t be able to find this play. It’s literally a myth.

While posting a career best 2.1 yards per carry average this past season, you would be a fool to pigeon hole Line as a feared running back. The ultimate team player, Zach also recorded two tackles. These two tackles match a career best for Line. Same as the mythical five yard run, these two tackles do not show up in any of the game highlights. It’s almost as if they never happened. This how legends are made.

Those other contenders on this Viking’s team did have moments of greatness. Thielen, Bradford, Xavier even Danielle Hunter was in contention. But none of these players could match Zach Line’s numbers.
Never mind that they didn’t want to.

Ole
Ole
Reply to  BJ Reidell
4 years ago

You will do well here at VT, BJ, if you just remember these three maxims
Brett Anderson is the clubhouse leader when it comes to a bad hair cut
Sam Neumann’s porn-stache is a capable contender

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