Skol Scale Vol. 22: Grit

Drew Mahowald presents the 22nd edition of the Skol Scale following a stunning Minnesota Vikings victory over the New Orleans Saints.

This team, man. This freaking team.

All season, myself and fans alike have felt something different about this year’s Minnesota Vikings. I’ve been searching for the indescribable quality that this team has that previous teams in my lifetime just haven’t had.

We’ve all recognized how special it is that so many members of this team have overcome incredible obstacles to make it this far. These Vikings have defeated the odds more than any team in franchise history, and more than many teams in NFL history. Obviously, Sunday’s eye-popping, heart attack-inducing spectacle was no different.

What is it that makes this team so special?

I spent weeks trying to find the correct words to define this intangible quality. Then I thought about Mike Zimmer, the man who completely shifted the culture once he arrived in Minnesota as the new head coach four years ago. His persona has gravitated throughout the locker room and the fan base. He’s the source of this remarkable run.

Then it came to me — this team has grit. A lot of it.

Grit doesn’t have one true definition. One can perform a quick google search and find a definition that reads, “courage and resolve; strength of character.” But there’s more than that. Courage, resolve and strength of character are all involved, sure. But maintaining those traits in the face of adversity requires maximum grit. Maintaining those traits when your season or career is on the line requires maximum grit. Maintaining those traits immediately after making a crucial mistake requires maximum grit.

These Vikings have maximum grit. From the top down, this team is grit personified, and it’s why they were able to pull out a miraculous win against New Orleans.

Let’s start with the top — Mike Zimmer. He was overlooked year after year for a head coaching job while leading a terrific Cincinnati defense. Team after team passed on him, choosing the likes of Jay Gruden or Lovie Smith or Jim Caldwell or Ken Whisenhunt instead. In just two years, he won the NFC North and was a 27-yard field goal away from a playoff win. Then, Walsh missed.

As the 2016 season rolled around, Minnesota had its eyes set on a deep playoff run. Just weeks prior to the season opener, the franchise quarterback severed his leg. A couple of months later, Zimmer himself started going blind in his right eye after retina damage and suffered through eight (!) surgeries. Eight surgeries.

But Mike Zimmer stayed patient and overcame those obstacles to lead a No. 1 ranked defense to an NFC Championship. That’s grit.

Players take after their leaders, and that’s no different with the Vikings. So much of this team’s success is built on players who weren’t supposed to make it in the NFL, let alone serve as starters on one of the NFL’s best teams. Case Keenum, Adam Thielen, Mike Remmers, Rashod Hill, C.J. Ham, Anthony Harris, Tom Johnson and Andrew Sendejo all went undrafted. Meanwhile, Stefon Diggs, Everson Griffen, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon were late-round draft picks.

Grit showed up on the field Sunday against the Saints. How about the grit of Case Keenum, who overcame an ugly interception to connect on multiple beautiful downfield passes that ultimately carried the Vikings to victory. Grit.

Xavier Rhodes, who was beaten by Michael Thomas for a touchdown in the third quarter, responded by locking Thomas down on three consecutive targets on New Orleans’s final drive. Grit.

Anthony Harris, stepping in for an injured starting safety Andrew Sendejo, saved the season with a run stop on 3rd-and-1 to preserve an opportunity for the Vikings offense to retake the lead. If he doesn’t fill that gap and stop Mark Ingram, the Vikings season is over. Grit.

How about Kai Forbath, drilling two fourth-quarter field goals from a combined distance of 102 yards to keep the Vikings alive. That’s cold-blooded grit.

Mike Zimmer’s squad isn’t the most naturally talented team the NFL has ever seen, not even close. But these Vikings are showing each week that natural talent matters less and less each week if you don’t combine it with excellent coaching and an incomparable drive to win.

And grit. Don’t forget grit.

Be sure to check out BetOnline before placing a wager on this weekend’s playoff games.

Dilly Dilly, on to Philly

Minnesota’s matchup in the NFC Championship game is the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles who scraped by the Atlanta Falcons 15-10 in the divisional round last week. MVP candidate Carson Wentz’s unfortunate knee injury has promoted Nick Foles to a starting quarterback role in Doug Pederson’s offense.

Philadelphia’s defense, meanwhile, is in the same tier as Minnesota and Jacksonville. Elite playmakers roam at all three levels and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz isn’t afraid to employ aggressive tactics against a gunslinging quarterback like Case Keenum.

The Eagles are absolutely more vulnerable without Wentz. That does not mean, however, that traveling to Lincoln Financial Field and coming away with a win will be an easy task for Minnesota. Philadelphia is loaded at every spot on its depth chart except for quarterback — and they’re loaded at quarterback when Wentz is healthy.

Sunday figures to be a low-scoring game as two of the NFL’s top three defenses battle for a spot in the Super Bowl. What will Pat Shurmur’s offense and Mike Zimmer’s defense need to accomplish to come away with a win?

Offense: Establish the run and protect Keenum

The Vikings’ running game got off to a hot start against New Orleans, but it cooled off quickly and was unable to sustain drives in the second half. Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon and the Minnesota offensive line will need to enough bring Philadelphia’s linebackers up and open the play-action game. Additionally, if the Vikings do gain a double-digit lead in the second half, the best way to close out the game is to keep the Eagles offense on the bench. An effective running game can do that.

Philadelphia’s defensive line is monstrous and loaded with talent. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham might be the best interior lineman-edge rusher combination in the NFL. Scheming double teams on Cox and providing outside help for Rashod Hill against Graham will be vital to the success of Minnesota’s offense. Hill was left on an island against Cam Jordan last week despite clear struggles throughout the game.

Defense: Make Nick Foles win the game

The Eagles have survived without Wentz largely due to their effective running game duo of Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. However, Minnesota’s run defense has been dominant all season long and shut down the Mark Ingram-Alvin Kamara duo last week against the Saints. A similar performance against the Eagles will force them to be one-dimensional and ride or die with Nick Foles. I like Minnesota’s odds in that scenario.

Doug Pederson will employ a condensed passing game against the Vikings, as he did against Atlanta. Foles only completed three passes further than 10 air yards downfield, and one of those should have been intercepted. To counter, Minnesota should place a bigger emphasis on press coverage and disrupt the timing of the quick throws.

Skol Scale Figure: 7

Last week’s number was a 6.5 for the New Orleans matchup, and I feel slightly better about the matchup with Philadelphia despite playing on the road. Nick Foles has been shaky at best since he took over as the starter without yet playing a defense of Minnesota’s caliber. My concerns in this matchup do not lie with the Vikings defense.

Offensively, the Vikings could struggle with the Eagles defense. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are both elite playmakers on the front four. Patrick Robinson, Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills is as good as it gets for cornerback trios in the NFL. Malcom Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are no scrubs at safety, either.

This game should be relatively low scoring, given the two defenses taking the field. With that said, it might take just two touchdown drives in this game to win. And I think the Vikings have a better shot to get there than Philly.

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Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is the No. 1 Jim Kleinsasser fan and No. 1 Little Caesars pizza enthusiast on planet Earth. That about sums it up.

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