By Jason Keidel
The matter seems resolved, except where it matters most.
The Minnesota Vikings, twelve games into a surreal season sans their starting or backup quarterback, seem to be the only ones who realize that their third-string QB is the main reason why.
At 10-2, firmly in first place in the NFC North and suddenly the top seed in the NFC, the Vikings keep telling us that QB Case Keenum is playing for his job every week. This was not an issue until recently, when Teddy Bridgewater returned from a most gruesome injury before the 2016 season. Understandably, Bridgewater is a sentimental favorite, the romantic or cinematic choice to lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl, which, coincidentally, is being played in their home stadium in February.
And sure, the Vikings have a rather robust defense that can shut almost anyone down – look how they handled Matt Ryan and Julio Jones on the road – with a fine secondary and rabid pass rush that held the Falcons to nine points yesterday. They have two stud wideouts in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, a fine TE in Kyle Rudolph, and a sturdy, two-headed rushing attack in Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon.
But if the QB gets the stick when the team tanks, he surely gets to bite the carrot when they win. And Keenum has been more than sturdy, stable, or the ever-dreaded game manager. And yesterday was a perfect emblem of his play. Keenum completed 83 percent of his passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, for a healthy 120.4 passer rating. The Vikings scored 14 points in Atlanta, and Keenum delivered them.
Atlanta is not only the defending NFC champion, but also winners of three straight before Keenum and the Vikings cooled them off. Road wins are gold in the NFL, particularly against teams of Atlanta’s timbre. The Vikings did so by running 12 more plays, and held the ball eight more minutes. It speaks to balance, preparation, and coaching.
Speaking of coaching, if not for the David Copperfield job Sean McVay has done in Los Angeles, turning the moribund Rams into real contenders, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer might be the leading man for Coach of the Year.
And maybe he’s onto something by keeping Keenum squirming while starting under center. Perhaps he notices something inside Keenum that is shielded from the rest of us. Does Keenum need to be challenged so profoundly and publicly? Does Keenum thrive under a quotient of torment or turbulence? Or is Zimmer just lost in coaching platitudes and should just tell us what we already know – that the Vikings will go as far as Keenum’s right arm will lift them?
And remember that Keenum is also pulling this off without all-world rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who was shredding defenses before he was felled by a season-ending injury. And while Murray is a nice option off the bench, the former Raider doesn’t have Cook’s all-around skills.
Now that the Eagles lost to the Seahawks, the Vikings hold the tiebreaker for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They also are now the NFC’s hottest team, winners of eight straight, and their stout defense has surrendered the fewest points (204) in the conference. In fact, of teams that have played 12 games (the Steelers play tonight), only the Jacksonville Jaguars have yielded fewer points (178) out of the 32 NFL clubs. Minnesota is also second behind the Jags in total yards allowed per game (289.1).
But like most NFL fates, the Vikings’ future rests on the skill and will of their quarterback. It says here that Keenum has done more than earn Zimmer’s praise. He’s won the starting job. Even if Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, and Fran Tarkenton return to action.
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.