Minnesota Vikings: Super Bowl success on the cards for this year's hosts?
By David Currie
Last Updated: 25/12/17 12:06am
The Minnesota Vikings are NFC North champs.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman spoke with Sky Sports after the team clinched their division for the second time in three years, with a 34-7 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.
"It's always great to win the division, very tough to win the division," said Spielman. "But, it is just one of the goals we set going into the season. We have a lot still to accomplish, and there's still a lot of football left to be played. Hopefully we'll be able to check off a few more boxes on some of those goals."
A subsequent shut out win over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night means the Vikings have quietly accumulated an 12-3 record on the season, to see themselves occupy the second seed in the NFC playoff picture.
'Quietly', because in comparison to the NFL-best Philadelphia Eagles, the defending champions New England Patriots, the remarkable rise of the Los Angeles Rams, the somewhat unfashionable Vikings are often forgotten.
The reason they're unfashionable; Minnesota are currently winning games with a third-string quarterback, Case Keenum, they lost their star rookie running back Dalvin Cook for the season in Week Four and their starters at wide receiver are 2015 fifth-rounder Stefon Diggs and undrafted Adam Thielen.
But, it's precisely their personnel, paired with a ferocious defense - ranking in the top five in both yards and points per game allowed - that is the driving force behind their success.
Spielman, speaking to Sky Sports during the offseason said on the team's recruitment process, "We grade every NFL player every year. If a guy has been in the NFL 10 years, we have 10 years worth of reports on him.
"That means that when we get into the offseason, trying to address our needs - improve in the areas we need to improve in - we first evaluate our roster, then have a meeting to discuss all of the available free agents and guys in that year's draft class.
"Let's say that maybe in free agency there are only two offensive linemen we like, compared to 10 in the draft class - we say, let's sit out the free agency market, maybe grab one guy, but go more aggressive in the draft.
"It could also be the opposite. There could be better personnel in free agency than in the depth of the draft at that position, so we'll attack free agency to fill our need."
Spielman and his staff's historical grading has helped the team add quality to their roster at good value, with their depth at quarterback and running back serving as evidence.
Latavius Murray - a free agent addition from the Oakland Raiders during the offseason - is one half of an impressive one-two punch with Jerick McKinnon at running back, helping cover the loss of Cook. Murray is only two years removed from a 1,000-yard year with the Raiders.
Most notably though, it's the success of Keenum at quarterback which has stood out. The sixth-year QB arrived in Minnesota off the back of nine-TD and 11-interception strong season with the Rams, where he was replaced by rookie Jared Goff as starter midway through the forgettable campaign.
The Vikings saw something they liked though, enough to bring him in to back up original season starter Sam Bradford, who was acquired in similar fashion in 2016 - a supposedly 'washed-up' quarterback fresh from a poor year with the Philadelphia Eagles - to cover the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, who went down with a potential career-threatening leg injury in preseason.
"We were going to call the Packers first, see if they wanted to deal Aaron Rodgers," joked Spielman. "That phone call would have been pretty short!
"But, within an hour of Teddy's injury, as shocking as that was, we had to get back to work right away.
"I got our Pro Personnel department together, to see who had maybe an excess of quarterbacks and see who would be willing to trade one. Once we narrowed that list down, we then decided which from that list were worth trading for, that can give us the best chance to win.
"Fortunately for us, we were able to work something out with Sam."
As has sadly been the case for much of his NFL career, Bradford has been kept out through injury, for all but two starts this season.
Up stepped Keenum. He has guided the Vikings to 10 of their 12 wins, and relieved Bradford as starter in a 11th, on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears earlier in the season.
Keenum has thrown 21 touchdowns to just seven picks, and even with the feel-good story that Bridgewater is now back as an active member of the roster, and saw playing time against the Bengals to quite the reception from the home crowd, there are no signs a change will be made in the immediate future.
"It's a great story," Spielman said of Bridgewater on Sunday. "I think a lot of people had a tear in their eye, considering how hard Teddy has worked - he is such a great kid, such an inspiration.
"To have had such a devastating knee injury like he did, to actually get back on the field is a huge accomplishment. That speaks to Teddy's work ethic, his character and what he stands for. The team recognises that."
Bridgewater only saw action late on after Keenum was pulled out of the game, rested, with the result already assured. As much of an undeniable feel good story as it is, it would be mad for Minnesota to change their winning formula at this point of the season and move away from Keenum.
But, the very fact they even have a choice to make is more than most are afforded. Green Bay minus Rodgers, Arizona Cardinals without Carson Palmer, the Deshaun Watson-less Houston Texans, to name a few.
This Vikings team's constant evaluation of their roster and the teams around them, means they've acquired depth, perhaps better than anyone else in the NFL.
Could it end up being a key contributing factor to Minnesota becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium? With Spielman at the helm, it won't be for the want of trying.