Zulgad: Zimmer’s calm, cool and collected act proves to be a winning play

The Vikings were 1-2-1 and had dropped consecutive games when Mike Zimmer did his best Aaron Rodgers impersonation and, in his own way, told us to R-E-L-A-X.

“Everybody forgets we were 2-2 last year at this time,” Zimmer said following the Vikings’ 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. “We will just keep fighting and playing. Just because everybody expected us to be 4-0 at this point, or whatever it is, doesn’t mean that’s realistic. We are just going to keep fighting and try to sure up things.”

Nearly a month later, Zimmer’s call for calm has proven to be prescient.

The Vikings are 4-2-1 and atop the NFC North after a 37-17 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium and will face a major test next Sunday night when they play host to New Orleans in a rematch of their classic NFC playoff game last January.

There haven’t been many works of art when it comes to Vikings’ games this season — back-to-back victories over Arizona and the Jets were more of the grind-it-out variety — but Minnesota has put together a three-game winning streak since the loss in Los Angeles and that’s all that matters.

The streak started with a key victory in Philadelphia, the place where the Vikings got blown out in last season’s NFC title game, and it could continue against the NFC South-leading Saints (5-1). That won’t be easy considering Zimmer’s banged-up defense could be missing several key starters (linebacker Anthony Barr and cornerback Xavier Rhodes left Sunday’s game in the second half) and will be trying to slow ageless wonder Drew Brees.

But don’t sell the crafty Zimmer short.

Earlier this season it appeared as if his defense might have lost its mojo. But Carson Wentz and rookie quarterbacks Josh Rosen (Arizona) and Sam Darnold (Jets) likely would tell you otherwise. Shutting down or even containing Brees before a sold out crowd of boisterous Vikings fans at U.S. Bank Stadium isn’t going to be easy.

A victory over the Saints would put the Vikings in the conversation for being one of the top teams in the NFC, along with the Rams and New Orleans. But even if the Vikings lose the game, they still could enter their bye week in good shape with a win over Detroit the following Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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After beating the Eagles, the feeling was that if the Vikings took three of their next four they would have set themselves up pretty well. Lose to the Saints and beat Detroit and that will be the case. That would put the Vikings at 5-3-1 with four NFC North opponents and five conferences foes to play in the remaining seven games.

The Vikings got a huge break from the schedule-makers when it comes to the timing of their bye. The Bears’ bye was in Week 5, the Lions was last week and the Packers had their bye on Sunday. There is never a bad time for a week of rest, but having it as late as Week 10 means the Vikings will have ample opportunity to get healthy before things heat up in November.

This could be especially beneficial considering the Vikings already were without three defensive starters (Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Andrew Sendejo) on Sunday before Barr and Rhodes departed.

The Vikings also played a second consecutive game without starting left tackle Riley Reiff and lost guard Tom Compton in the first half. One also would think that at some point soon running back Dalvin Cook (hamstring) will return after missing the past three games and four of the past five.

Veteran Latavius Murray is a capable running back, but a healthy Cook could make an enormous difference in the Vikings’ offense considering his ability to not only run the ball but also catch and block as well as pick up yards after contact.

Although it could come back to bite them at some point, the Vikings largely have erased the feeling of doubt that resulted from their 27-6 loss to Buffalo in Week 3 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Bills fell to 2-5 with a 37-5 loss Sunday at Indianapolis and how a hapless collection like that so soundly beat the Vikings forever will be a mystery.

It’s a credit to Zimmer that he so quickly moved on from that defeat. That also was a sign of how much he learned from allowing himself to get so upset after the Vikings lost at Philadelphia in Week 7 out of the bye in 2016. Minnesota entered that game with a 5-0 record, but never recovered from the Eagles loss and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

Zimmer did not allow himself to relax that season and the end result was a massive disappointment. The script on 2018 has yet to be completed, but right now it appears as if the head coach’s ability to move on from a rough spell has put his team back on a positive track.