This past Sunday night brought one of the biggest wins in Minnesota Vikings history.
As the nation watched the final game of the NFL regular season, the Vikings not only clinched the NFC North championship, but they did it by defeating the division’s four-time reigning champion, Green Bay, at its own hallowed Lambeau Field.
Just minutes after the 20-13 victory, in the visitor’s locker room where the Vikings still wore their purple and white uniforms, coach Mike Zimmer addressed his team.
“We’ve got a lot of heart,” he said. “Come to Lambeau, defeat the champions, become the champions.”
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And then before the Vikings could even cheer their own success, his message turned to the future: “So we play Sunday … at home against Seattle.”
This week, as that playoff opener against the two-time defending conference champions ticked ever closer, Zimmer was asked about his swift shift from goal achieved to goal ahead.
“This team’s been pretty good, focused, talking about the task at hand,” he said. “I mean, it was nice to win the division. … Winning the division was part of the goal. Getting to the playoffs was another part of the goal. But winning in the playoffs is the ultimate goal.”
If that ultimate goal is to be achieved, scores must be settled along the way.
That win at Green Bay avenged a November loss to the Packers. If the Vikings advance this weekend, they head out to Arizona to face the Cardinals, who knocked them off in December. If they make it all the way to the Super Bowl, they will return to Levi’s Stadium, where they opened this season with a loss to the 49ers.
But first up is the rematch with Seattle — another champion to defeat on the road to becoming champions, and a team that mauled the Vikings on their home turf, 38-7, on Dec. 6.
“We look at (that game) and see the things, how they hurt us, the things they did against us,” Zimmer said. “They played very well in every phase of that game. Defensively, they got after us. Offensively, they got after us. It was a pretty good bout with them.”
This will be Zimmer’s first playoff game as a head coach. But he has plenty of postseason experience as an assistant, including as defensive backs coach of the Super Bowl 30-champion Dallas Cowboys during the 1995 season.
He joined that Cowboys staff in 1994 after four seasons as defensive coordinator at Washington State.
“I met a lot of great people at Washington State,” he said. “I had a heck of a lot of good football players. I was with Mike Price for a number of years, coach (Bill) Doba, who I am still in contact with; Mike Price, who I am still in contact with. It was really an integral part of my coaching career and philosophy.”
In some ways that philosophy mirrors that of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: a time-munching running game on one side, a jarring defense on the other. And that’s no surprise. After jumping to the NFL, Zimmer served as defensive coordinator at Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati before becoming head coach of the Vikings in 2014.
His first Minnesota team finished 7-9, with particular improvement showing within his area of expertise. That Vikings team jumped from 31st in the league in total defense to 14th.
This year’s team inched to 13th in total defense and fifth in points allowed. Those 38 points surrendered to the Seahawks were the most the Vikings allowed this season.
Their defense is healthier this time around. Only defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis (ankle) has been ruled out. Defensive linemen Linval Joseph (foot) and Everson Griffen (shoulder) participated fully in Friday practice and are listed as probable for Sunday.
That gives Zimmer hope that his defense can do a better job of containing Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson.
“(Wilson) doesn’t seem to make mistakes, and obviously he’s extremely elusive,” Zimmer said. “I think the way he’s throwing the ball is most impressive to me. … Unfortunately for us, it’ll be another tough test.”