By Jason Keidel
The marquee matchup of Week 11 would have been laughed off the schedule in 2016.
In other sports, parity is way more parody than reality. But not in the NFL, where all four division leaders in the NFC didn’t even make the playoffs last year.
And the game of the week was between two unlikely contenders, when the Los Angeles Rams visited the Minnesota Vikings. Both clubs entered the contest with a 7-2 record and beaming from first place in their respective divisions. The Vikings’ ascent isn’t all that shocking, as they dashed out to a 5-0 record in 2016 then skidded off the playoff highway. Teddy Bridgewater suffered perhaps the most gruesome non-contact injury ever. The Vikings desperately plugged the QB hole by trading for Sam Bradford. It seemed to work for a while then the season fizzled with the Vikings missing out on the postseason.
Now we have Case Keenum, career NFL gypsy, playing like a 10-year starter and leading Minnesota to win after win, including yesterday’s 24-7 pounding of the Rams. After Los Angeles started the game with a dazzling opening drive, punctuated by a sublime TD scamper from Todd Gurley — the Rams were held scoreless for the next 3.5 quarters. Quite an accomplishment considering the Rams were blowing the doors off the sport, averaging over 30 points per game.
So did the Vikings hold serve or serve notice? The time really is now for Minnesota, who have perhaps the most suffocating defense in pro football, and are winning despite the loss of Bradford. Indeed, Keenum has been so capable (27/38, 280 yards, TD, 0 INT) that head coach Mike Zimmer still won’t start Bridgewater, who is finally healthy after nearly a year and a half of grueling rehab.
Even in this new world of offense, defense still has its place. Without Bridgewater, Bradford, and even rookie sensation Dalvin Cook, the Vikings continue to dominate. After the Rams sliced through the Vikings on the opening drive, it wasn’t clear how the game would shake out. But Minnesota closed their defensive jaws on Jared Goff, Gurley, and the rest of their nuclear offense.
Minnesota has surrendered the fewest points (172) among all NFC clubs who have played 10 games. Seattle (165) plays tonight, and will likely give up more than seven points to Atlanta. The Vikings have also won six games in a row.
Consider the local landscape just beyond the Twin Cities, across the NFC North. Chicago is a year or two from contention. Green Bay is lost without Aaron Rodgers, getting bludgeoned at Lambeau Field by the very average Ravens, suffering their first home shutout in a decade. Only Detroit can really contend, or pretend, to play with the Vikings. The Lions (6-4) are two games back, but have won three straight, and Matt Stafford has proved he can carry an NFL franchise.
Fittingly, the Lions, one of only two teams to beat the Vikings, host them this Thursday, for their yearly serving of Thanksgiving football. Both teams will be playing on four days of rest. A Lions win puts them one game back, with control of the head-to-head tiebreaker. With so many variables, the time is now for Minnesota.
The Rams aren’t just surprisingly good, they’re also awfully young. So if they plunge back to earth this year, they can only get better next year. And they only have one real competitor in the NFC West — the Seahawks — who are suffering a biblical plague of injuries, particularly on defense, with the Legion of Boom now without its two leaders (Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman).
This game, like this season, was much more about Minnesota, who are 8-2, and only a game behind the Philadelphia Eagles (9-1) for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. And their schedule is hardly brutal. After their tough trip to Detroit with only three days to prepare, they get 10 days to prep for the disappointing Atlanta Falcons. Then they play their toughest game the rest of the way at the 7-3 Carolina Panthers. If they can sneak past the Panthers, the Vikings finish the season with a pillow-soft three games against the Bengals, Packers, and Bears, with two of them at home. Only a remarkable comeback by Aaron Rodgers could keep the Vikings from finishing 3-0.
And even that probably won’t keep them from the playoffs.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.