We know this much about the Minnesota Vikings after they demolished the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday: They’re division champions and guaranteed themselves at least one home playoff game.
It’s a scenario where Vikings fans have seen struggles before. The Vikings needed a win to clinch the NFC North Division title. Cincinnati came in with head coach Marvin Lewis, at best, walking on eggshells. It was announced before kickoff that he intended to step away from coaching duties after the season. That left the Bengals with two choices: Play your hardest and try to win one for the coach on his way out, or begin mentally packing your bags and don’t get hurt before the season is over.
The Vikings did their job by not giving the Bengals any hope early. They scored on their first possession and got an interception for a touchdown on their first defensive series. With a 14-0 lead, the game was effectively over in the first quarter.
Teddy Bridgewater made an emotional return, and the Vikings defense dominated yet again in a 34-7 victory for their second NFC North title in three seasons. Here are four takeaways from Sunday’s win.
Keenum States His Case (Again)
It didn’t need any more validation, but it’s become clear that Case Keenum should be the Vikings quarterback the rest of the season. He was stellar yet again Sunday, going 20-of-23 passing for 236 yards and two touchdowns with, most importantly, zero turnovers. Nearly half of his passing yards went to Jerick McKinnon, who had seven catches for 114 yards. The turning point was early. Keenum took a sack on the Vikings’ first offensive play, then drove the offense down the filed for an early score.
Keenum and the Vikings offense didn’t give a banged up Bengals defense any hope early. Minnesota collected 346 yards of total offense, and Keenum helped build a 24-0 halftime lead.
For the season, Keenum is completing nearly 68 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He’s passed every test he’s been given, despite fans and social media noise for Teddy Bridgewater to get more playing time. He’s given the Vikings no reason to make a change in the postseason, so we should be prepared to ride the Keenum train.
In one of the most emotional moments of the season so far, Teddy Bridgewater entered Sunday’s game and took his first real snap in more than 700 days. U.S. Bank Stadium was so loud that Bridgewater could barely hear the play call in his helmet. It was the perfect scenario to get Bridgewater his first live game action since his devastating knee injury. The Vikings were up 34-0 in the fourth quarter, reserves were entering the game on both sides and it served as a chance to get a look at Bridgewater going forward.
What we saw is he’s rusty, which is expected when you haven’t taken a real snap in well over a year. He had happy feet, threw only two passes and had one intercepted after Jerick McKinnon couldn’t handle a high throw. While Bridgewater probably isn’t ready yet for a full meaningful game, it was great to see him back on the field after many didn’t give him a chance to play football again.
The Vikings have solidified themselves as one of the top defenses in the NFL, and that only got better Sunday. Cincinnati scored seven meaningless points in the fourth quarter against Minnesota. The Bengals managed just 161 total yards, and just 113 passing from Andy Dalton. The Vikings sacked him three times, pressured him multiple other times and forced two interceptions. Eric Kendricks returned one of those for a touchdown.
The Bengals managed just eight first downs for the game and went 1-for-13 on third down. The Vikings are one of the best defenses in the NFL when it comes to yards per play. They’re only behind the Jacksonville Jaguars right now. The Vikings have asserted themselves as one of the best third down defenses in the NFL. The defense’s dominance, with the way Keenum has the offense rolling, is a championship formula.
Injured Players Getting Healthy
The Vikings left Carolina last week concerned on the injury front after a loss. But they received good news early in the week preparing for Cincinnati when offensive linemen Pat Elflein and Mike Remmers returned to practice. The Vikings held Riley Reiff out, but he’ll be back for the NFC Playoffs. David Morgan, a tight end key in run blocking, returned Sunday. Kyle Rudolph seemed doubtful to play with a bad ankle, but found a way to get on the field Sunday and caught a touchdown pass.
The Vikings are getting injured players back, and they’re not suffering major injuries that we see every week across the NFL. And perhaps most importantly, the defense is staying mostly intact. When you look at teams capable of contending for a Super Bowl, they’re often the ones that stay the healthiest and avoid major injuries to key players. That bodes well for this Vikings squad the rest of the year, if it can remain healthy.
The Vikings head to Green Bay Saturday, and the Packers could be eliminated from the playoffs before the Vikings get there. Minnesota likely needs to win one of its final two games to earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Enjoy the ride, Vikings fans. It feels more and more like a Super Bowl team with each victory.