With four wins in a row and a 6-2 record heading into the bye week as division leaders, the Minnesota Vikings seem to be riding high. There’s no doubt that their performance today over the Cleveland Browns, particularly in the second half, was comfortable and impressive. However, an uncomfortable sense of deja vu seems to be lingering over Minnesota’s locker room as they enter Week 9.
Haven't they been here before?
The pains of last season's downfall after a strong start are far from forgotten. While everything has gone to plan the past four weeks, Anthony Barr was quick to assure the media that the Vikings weren't getting too comfortable after what happened to them in 2017:
It feels good, but we've been here before, we were 5-0 last year before the bye, came out and I think lost four straight games so its gonna be a big emphasis to stay in our keys and keep playing good football.
While Barr was keen to remain cautious in their optimism heading into the bye week, others were far more vocal in their happiness after today's victory. Riley Reiff focused on the importance of today's win regarding the momentum it could carry through:
It was crucial, you don't wanna have that sour taste in your mouth. But we've gotta get back to work, we've gotta clean up some things, obviously, we're not there yet, but it's good getting on the plane with a win.
It's a sentiment that was echoed by rookie center Pat Elflein: "It's great. heading into the bye week with some momentum, with a win, with a good feeling in your stomach. Yeah I think it's key". Defensive end Everson Griffen likewise stated "we're 6-2 going into a bye week and our team is on fire. We've got great team chemistry".
The start is key
One issue worth noting is their current trend of starting slow. There is no denying that Case Keenum's start to the game was sloppy. His first quarter interception led to the Browns' opening TD, a perfect microcosm of a first quarter in which the Vikings racked up just three points. Coach Zimmer admitted that "I thought early [Keenum] was a little spotty, but in the second half, I thought he made some great throws in the second half. He took care of the football. I thought he played great in the second half". This was clearly an issue among the players, with Anthony Barr saying "we were kind of like asleep in the first half... we didn't show up". These slow starts were also pointed to by Elflein who, when discussing their focus for the upcoming bye week, said: "There's a lot of different things, third downs, starting fast, not kind of sputtering and then getting going". Going into more detail, Barr discussed the specific issues that had hampered the Vikings early on in London:
A lot of big gains on the defense, miscommunications, and penalties on offense, special teams a couple plays here and there, it was just a mindset we needed to get back to playing our type of football and we were able to do that.
While these slow starts haven't prevented the Vikings from getting six wins from their first eight games, it has to be concerning for the team that Minnesota haven't recorded more than seven first-quarter points since September 24th against the Bears. This habit of starting off slow may not have cost them big so far, but against a more capable offense such as the Rams or Lions next month, wasting early chances and conceding too many points may well prove too much for their characteristic second-half performances to overcome.
A crucial bye week
It's fair to say that bye weeks are always important to the players. It gives them and the staff all a chance to rest and recover, especially after such a long trip. For the Vikings, it also gives them the opportunity to improve on their weaker areas. As Reiff told us:
[The bye week will] let guys heal up a little bit, just clean up stuff. I know coach said we have some stuff to clean up and we're gonna go [into] areas that we haven't been very good at. You know it might be a small area, it might be a big area. But you know, we're gonna get back to work [in a] few days and take some time off and recover.
Latavius Murray, who finished with just 39 rushing yards, shared his thoughts on what the team needed to focus on during the bye week:
We've just got to continue to find ways to win, continue to find things - I know we have things to get better at but continue to get better at things, correct the mistakes we made and just try to keep building and try to keep playing better and better each week. And hopefully, we'll love the outcome of that.
Entering Week 9, the Vikings are in a strong position - arguably even more so than last year. The Packers, who have long dominated the NFC North, are without the Aaron Rodgers for the vast majority of the season in the best scenario. Also worth noting is that, with two defeats already under their belt, the pressure that was heaped upon them to stay undefeated after their bye week is no longer an issue.
Everything seems to be aligning for the Vikings. In a very inconsistent league, a relatively consistent Vikings team they have a real opportunity to march into the postseason with the NFC North crowns, and even a chance to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium next February - if they can fix their slow starts.
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