EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.—One of coach Mike Zimmer’s favourite warnings for the Minnesota Vikings is this: “Don’t take the cheese.”
The advice to stay hungry and avoid complacency—analogous to a mouse sniffing a trap set with a tasty snack—will be especially pertinent now that they’ve moved past the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.
“I’m sure you’re all aware, all right, that we’re in first place,” Zimmer told the players after a 30-14 victory Sunday at Oakland in a video posted on the team’s website.
“You know what that means? It means nothing,” said Zimmer.
“It’s not where we are. It’s where we finish at the end of the year,” he stressed.
If the Vikings beat the Packers for the first time since Dec. 30, 2012, they’ll have a two-game lead in the race that would be more like three with six to play because of the tie-breaker edge.
Considering how Zimmer consistently has pushed his players to disprove whatever external doubts about them exist, an attitude he has acknowledged is rooted in his own personality and experience, the Vikings might as well be in last place.
“We have to continue to stay motivated and continue to play with that chip on our shoulders,” said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t believe everything you see.”
The Vikings actually would like to take down the cheese this week, with the Packers and their fans from the dairy state due to arrive.
Their biggest rival—winners of four-straight division titles plus the Super Bowl after the 2010 season—is reeling.
Despite the predictable attempts by the Vikings to temper the significance of this game, there was a palpable buzz in the building yesterday.
Hanging in each player’s cubicle in the locker-room was a new black T-shirt, with the NFC North and Vikings’ logos printed on the front and “Beat Green Bay” in all capital letters on the back.
The entrepreneur? Zimmer himself.
“We’re making way too big a deal out of that,” Zimmer replied when asked to elaborate on his idea.
“It’s just a T-shirt,” he noted. “It’s a T-shirt. You go down to the store and print them up.”
The Vikings, who have won five-straight games for a 7-2 record, are 1-9-1 in their past 11 match-ups with the Packers.
“It’s more about understanding who we are, how we got here, what we have to continue to do,” Zimmer said.
“I understand the heightened part of this game but you know it’s still about us and how we play.
“I think that our players will know that this is a big game,” Zimmer added.
“I don’t think that I’m going to have to pull out any magic wands or anything like that.”
There’s little magic in the formula the Vikings have been using to win.
Success starts with the aggressive defence that now leads the NFL with an average of just 17.1 points allowed per game.
Zimmer has taught the scheme for decades—and the Vikings have taken to it quickly.
“He’s brought a different mentality in here the last two years,” noted defensive end Brian Robison.
“Everything is about being more physical, outworking our opponent,” he said.
“I think that’s what you’re seeing on the field.”
The special teams have been superb, and Cordarrelle Patterson added to the list with a kick-off return for a touchdown late in the second quarter against the Raiders.
Bridgewater, meanwhile, played a turnover-free game returning from a concussion.
Then there’s running back Adrian Peterson, who posted his sixth career 200-yard rushing performance on Sunday.
The best current record of the teams the Vikings have beaten this season is 4-5, but that’s not their problem.
“If we’re not impressive and we keep winning, more power to us,” said Zimmer.