Mike Roemer/Associated Press
Truly dominant NFL teams are defined by how intimidating they are at their best and, even more significantly, by how they cope, persevere and still succeed when something isn’t quite right.
Case Keenum, who has warmed hearts and raised fists in Minnesota with his comeback story, was dismal for much of the night, and unrecognizable compared to his recent outings. Keenum completed only 56.0 percent of his pass attempts, which was stunning to see from a quarterback whose completion percentage had reached at least 70.0 in four of his last five games.
He averaged a lowly 5.6 yards per throw, and an offense that had been scoring 26.4 points per game since Week 5—when a 10-1 stretch started for the Vikings—scored just 16 against a defense missing Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the Packers’ two primary pass-rushers.
Yet none of that mattered in the end because even when the offense is sputtering, the Vikings are still the NFC’s most well-rounded team with a defense to lift them up.
The Vikings defense did what was expected against an inaccurate backup quarterback who sprays balls everywhere but his intended target. They smothered Brett Hundley, and earned the franchise’s first shutout since 1993.
Holding an NFL team to zero points is incredibly difficult, even one led by Hundley. Usually, some heroics are required to maintain that nice, round number on the scoreboard. And Saturday the cape-wearing hero was safety Harrison Smith, who somehow wasn’t named to the NFC Pro Bowl team.
Smith snatched two interceptions. On the first he erased a promising Packers drive in the second quarter that had advanced to Minnesota’s 15-yard line. And on the second he sealed the win late in the fourth quarter with his positioning and instincts to undercut a throw on 4th-and-1 intended for tight end Lance Kendricks.
As Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus noted, Smith is always hovering, and always ready to strip an offense of any momentum or life. On his way to doing that in 2017 he’s made PFF history:
Nathan Jahnke @PFF_NateJahnke
Harrison Smith on the season: 25 stops 0 TDs allowed 5 INT 5 Pass Breakups In the 12 years PFF has data for, there has been no other player with 0 TDs allowed, 25+ stops and 5+ interceptions in a season
Smith was one of the key cogs for a defense that gave up just 130 passing yards to Hundley, all at a minuscule average of 3.3 yards per attempt.
The Packers shouldn’t have had any chance against the Vikings with Hundley under center. That was true even with the home-field advantage of chilly Lambeau Field in late December.
The final score was closer than it should have been because of the weather-induced belch by the Vikings offense. But the scoreboard didn’t reflect just how much the defense took care of its assignment and stomped on an inferior opponent.
The Packers gained just 45 yards on their first 17 plays. Hundley finished the first quarter with a mere nine passing yards, and his offense didn’t take a snap inside opposing territory until the 3:50 mark of the second quarter.
It gets better, or worse if you’re the type who attends winter Packers games in a bikini.
The Vikings also forced four three-and-outs, made Packers punter Justin Vogel do his job six times, held Green Bay to 3.7 yards per play, and limited the home team to just four successful third-down conversions on 15 attempts (26 percent conversion rate).
The Vikings defense played like a unit that’s consistently been the heartbeat of a championship-contending team in 2017, and especially during a remarkable 11-game run.
|Vikings points allowed since Week 5|
|Week 5 @ Bears||17|
|Week 6 vs. Packers||10|
|Week 7 vs. Ravens||16|
|Week 8 @ Browns||16|
|Week 10 @ Redskins||30|
|Week 11 vs. Rams||7|
|Week 12 @ Lions||23|
|Week 13 @ Falcons||9|
|Week 14 @ Panthers||31|
|Week 15 vs. Bengals||7|
|Week 16 @ Packers||0|
That’s a streak of dominance with only three games allowing 20-plus points. It also includes a game when the Los Angeles Rams, the league’s most explosive offense averaging 31.3 points per game, were held to only a touchdown.
The Vikings have ridden that defensive strength to an NFC North title, and now find themselves in prime position for a first-round bye (they clinch one with either another win in Week 17, or a Carolina Panthers loss or tie Sunday).
If they secure that free pass into the second round they’ll be just two wins away from becoming the first team to play at home in the Super Bowl.
Suddenly, after a win during a bitterly cold night when throws were scattered, balls were dropped and the defense remained the steady backbone, that dream is looking not just possible, but probable.