There is nothing to like about losing games in the NFL, but there was plenty to take away from the Vikings 16-14 nail-biter in Detroit on Sunday, especially as they look to finish the season strong over the final two weeks in games at Miami and against division rival Chicago.
Here are three lessons and three questions as the NFL calendar nears Week 16.
1. Zimmer is glad Bridgewater is playingVikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer disclosed on Monday during his customary day-after-the-game press conference that he spoke to his team about the importance of learning how to finish games, citing the shortcomings in a game at Buffalo and successes in games at Tampa Bay and versus the NY Jets. While broaching the topic at the podium, Zimmer used the term "on the job training" with regard to his rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.
Pressed on the growth and development of Bridgewater and the fact that he was thrust into the starting lineup during his rookie season, Zimmer explained he is glad Bridgewater is playing now and picking up experience to help him and the team down the road.
"Well, I really think you learn best from playing. That's what I believe. I'm glad that he's playing," Zimmer said. "I think in the long run his playing and going through all of these experiences and getting a chance to play against Green Bay and Chicago and Detroit will be a big factor for us in the future because he's been through these things now. It's not new. If he wasn't playing that fourth quarter that the things that happened in the ball game, maybe next year we're in the same boat and he's learning from it then as opposed to learning from it now. And the one thing I do know about Teddy is he learns from a lot of the experiences he's had and I expect him to continue to improve in those ways."
2. The secondary is the most improved part of the teamWhether judging by stats or simply the eye test, it's easy to argue the Vikings secondary is the most improved part of the team from 2013 to now. A season ago, the Vikings ranked 32nd in passing touchdowns allowed, 31st in passing yards allowed and 30th in passer rating allowed. Entering Week 16 of this season, the Vikings have the No. 6 pass defense in the NFL and they're coming off a game in which they held Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to under 100 combined yards. A healthy Harrison Smith has made a difference and the free agent signing of Captain Munnerlyn has solidified the nickel defense, but there's no question the emergence of Xavier Rhodes in his second season has been the bright spot.
3. Asiata embodies the attitude Zimmer wants the entire team to have
Without Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have turned to a host of players to shoulder the load of the running game. Primary among them has been Matt Asiata. While Asiata doesn't have the homerun-hitting capability of Peterson, he runs every bit as hard. Asiata's tough-running mentality and style was on full display Sunday in Detroit, particularly early in the game on some of his running plays and even on some of his receptions.
"I thought Matt ran well," Zimmer said on Monday. "Even a couple of times when Teddy dumped the ball off to him he went after the defensive backs and tried to pound them. When I talk about the mentality that I want to have as a football team, that's kind of part of it too – when we get a chance to hit somebody, we want to hit them. I thought that he displayed a lot of that."
1. Did Cordarrelle Patterson find his groove in Detroit?The season has not gone as hoped for Vikings playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson. He dazzled in Week 1 with eight touches for 176 total yards and one touchdown, but since then has struggled to impact games. Patterson said he recently had a "heart-to-heart" with his head coach, and then on Sunday he registered a 51-yard return late in the game that put the Vikings in position to begin a potential game-winning drive. Despite the explosive return and two subsequent catches on offensive drives, the Vikings were unable to capitalize on Patterson's slight resurgence. But will those late-game touches in Detroit lead the way to a strong finish over the final two games for Patterson?
2. Are backup offensive linemen earning offseason jobs?The Vikings rushing totals from Sunday's game in Detroit along with the four sacks allowed may not seem like much to write home about. But considering it came with the Vikings using three backups along their starting offensive line while going against perhaps the best defensive line in the NFL, the performance suddenly seems much more impressive.
Zimmer thought so, anyway.
"I thought they battled their rear ends off, Zimmer said. "I think they competed. I thought they fought like crazy to give us the opportunity to get the ball in the right place. I know the run game totals weren't exactly what I wanted but we did stay on the double teams pretty good. We knocked a couple of guys off the line of scrimmage and when we went to the second level a guy would fall off and make a play. They did some good things; probably as good as they've played this year."
With the team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, one can't help but look ahead to the offseason and the 2015 season. Viewing it through that prism, it's fair to wonder if some of the backups playing for the Vikings now, particularly along the offensive line, are auditioning to stay on the roster during the upcoming offseason in pursuit of roster spots and jobs for 2015.
3. Which injured defensive starters will return this week?The Vikings defense logged an outstanding effort in Detroit on Sunday, holding a Lions offense filled with explosive playmakers to just 233 net yards, 17 1st downs, a per-play average of just 4.7 yards and only one touchdown. And it was done with three starters – LB Anthony Barr, S Robert Blanton and DT Sharrif Floyd – missing in action. It's clear this team is playing hard to the end for Zimmer, so you can be sure those three are itching to get back in the lineup.