You hear the word ‘Saints,’ and suddenly it hits you. The image of a battered-and-bruised Brett Favre, writhing in pain as he scrapes himself off the turf. The sound of Pete Morelli announcing Brad Childress’s blunder, that Minnesota had broken the huddle with 12 men. The audible gasp of a collective fan base, watching Tracy Porter step effortlessly in front of Favre’s cross-body pass.
None of that matters.
It’s Week 1 of the 2017 regular season, and Sam Bradford is trying to silence his critics; those who questioned his ability to create explosive plays and lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl. On the opposite side of the field, Adrian Peterson is back at U.S. Stadium, fired up and ready to stick it to the team that kicked him to the curb for a younger, cheaper workhorse in Dalvin Cook.
None of that matters.
Not the film, the stats, or the end result. There is no revenge to be had, no score to be settled. On Sunday afternoon, when the New Orleans Saints return to U.S. Bank to face the Minnesota Vikings, they’ll do so as a familiar, if very much evolved and worthy foe in the 2017 NFC playoffs.
But don’t let the noise — the media narratives and painful memories — distract you. Sunday’s game is nothing new for these Minnesota Vikings.
The trials began in August 2016, when Teddy Bridgewater’s knee crumpled, not only tearing ligaments, but the hopes of a team whose arrow was pointing straight for the sky. Franchise quarterback sidelined and optimism sucked out of the building, it would’ve been easy to write the Vikings out of contention.
Shortly after his injury, though, Bridgewater released the following statement:[quote_center]”In order to have a testimony, you have to have a test. I come from amazing DNA, I watched my mom fight and win against breast cancer. We will, as a team, attack my rehab with the same vigor and energy. My faith is strong, my faith is unwavering and my vision is clear. My purpose will not be denied.”[/quote_center]
His words set the stage for what I believe is the cornerstone of Minnesota’s mindset, one that was developed over the course of a treacherous, potentially damaging 2016 campaign. As is painfully obvious, the Vikings started that season 5-0, only to collapse down the second half and finish 8-8, missing the playoffs in what was widely believed to be a Super Bowl season.
The lessons Mike Zimmer and his carefully crafted roster learned from 2016 are tremendous, and continue to pay dividends. The Green Bay mutiny, the defensive breakdowns late in the year, or the introduction of Bradford as savior quarterback could’ve rattled the locker room, shattering the chemistry he’d worked meticulously to establish since 2014. But it’s evident, after a season of similar pain and challenge, that those experiences only strengthened the 53 men and countless coaches who take the field each Sunday.
When Bradford’s own knee succumbed to the grips of arthritis (or a bone bruise, who knows), the vocal minority grew louder. “Here we go again,” they said. “Oh look, another season wasted, this is SO Vikings.”
I admittedly pay too much attention to the vocal minority; those who occupy the dark corners of Vikings Twitter, whose voices rise to the top and litter my newsfeed with pessimism. But who am I to blame or judge them? It’s understandable to feel such negativity after years of disappointment and homegrown heartbreak.
I’ve seen the kicks wide left, wide right, and everywhere in between. I witnessed Minnesota’s playoff elimination by way of last-second Arizona Cardinals touchdown. I saw the New York Giants score 41 unanswered points. I watched quarterback after quarterback, from Tarvaris Jackson to Christian Ponder, squeak into the playoffs, only to crack under the weight of lofty expectations.
That’s part of the problem, I think. We expect so much of the Vikings that we take their inevitable losses straight to the heart. We blind ourselves to the harsh truths, then attempt to rationalize the end result when those same truths come back to haunt us. Outside of 1998, when Minnesota should’ve won the Super Bowl, there lies an explanation for every emotional blow, no matter how little we want to confront it.
In 2009, poor head coaching in the form of Brad Childress doomed the Vikings. In 2012, depth behind Christian Ponder — hello, Joe Webb — torpedoed Minnesota’s chances from the start. Three years later, the roster’s weakest link, Blair Walsh, shanked the Vikings out of the playoffs. And in 2016, an offensive offensive line pummeled Bradford’s aspirations of leading Minnesota into the postseason.
There have always been trials and tribulations. Tests don’t come and go with the seasons. Every 16-game stretch presents its own challenges, and it’s up to the team on that journey to attack them head-on.
Bradford’s injury was the first in a line of potentially disastrous blows to the Vikings. Case Keenum, expected to be an emergency backup, looked utterly lost in his first game as the franchise’s season-long alternative. Three weeks later, Cook tore his ACL, ending a promising rookie season and damaging the identity of a surprisingly explosive offense. Cook’s injury was my first real moment of fear; the one time this season I doubted the future of what I had always believed to be a Super Bowl-bound team.
My sense of foreboding was misplaced. Like we overemphasize the positives — blinding our greater view of the on-field product — we hang onto bad news with intense ferocity. It’s amazing how one event can create a butterfly effect of thoughts in our minds, pushing us to a place of utter conviction and defeated acceptance. “The running game is screwed without Dalvin,” I thought. “Latavius Murray isn’t capable of masking bad blocking like Cook.”
I wasn’t wrong; in no way is Murray as explosive or dynamic as Cook. But combined with Jerick McKinnon, he’s a perfect puzzle piece in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s multidimensional system. With the ‘Thunder and Lightning’ duo in the backfield, the Vikings rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of their final 12 games, helping propel them to a top-10 ranking among all rushing attacks.
Keenum was a similar, if more extreme example of my fears personified. The book’s been written on the journeyman quarterback — his winding path through the NFL, his startling career resurgence in 2017, and his long-term potential in purple and gold. We may not know who he is week-to-week, but he’s been good enough for the Vikings this season, and Sunday will be his first real test as Minnesota’s hypothetical quarterback of the future.
For every question I’ve asked, I’ve received answers with the conviction of a thundering gjallarhorn. Will Trae Waynes turn the corner as Minnesota’s second boundary cornerback? Is the offensive line good enough to protect Keenum and open running lanes late in games? Can Zimmer’s defense realize it’s potential and maintain that level of greatness for an entire season?
Yes, yes, and yes.
It’s difficult to escape the noise. Talk of vindication is sure to hit your airwaves. Players will begrudgingly answer questions about the 2009 game this week. Clips of the Week 1 matchup have already flooded your timelines.
Block it out. Ignore it. None of that matters.
If you’ve had your doubts about these Minnesota Vikings, put them to the side. There is no turning back, no wondering “what if,” no making excuses based on bitter memories and teams of the past. The 2017 Vikings are capable of beating any team in the playoffs, including the New Orleans Saints.
I’ll admit, no team scares me more than the Saints, but I’ve confronted my fears and know the Vikings have, too. Any challenge or test New Orleans throws Minnesota’s way will pale in comparison to the countless challenges they’ve hurdled on their journey to this very moment.
When the crowd roars and the Vikings take the field on Sunday, they will be the calm amidst the chaos.