Four teams remain in the race for the Lombardi Trophy that will be awarded after Super Bowl 50.
The Vikings watched over the weekend as Arizona edged NFC North rival Green Bay, and Carolina jetted to a lead big enough to prevent an improbable comeback by Seattle for the second week in a row. In the AFC, New England advanced past Kansas City, and Denver rallied past Pittsburgh.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has talked about his admiration of Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick for the run that New England has had, but Jim Souhan of the *Star Tribune *writes that Carolina might be Minnesota's "logical role model" because they "mirror" each other in many ways.
Their coach, Ron Rivera, was a respected defensive coordinator who had to wait a surprising length of time for his first chance to be a head coach. Just like Mike Zimmer.
*Their coach looks like a tough guy but treats his players with respect. Like Zimmer. *
Their defense features a strong front line and capable secondary but is exceptional because of two free-range linebackers, Luke Kuechly and Thomas [Davis]. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks cover just as much pasture as the Panthers' outstanding duo.
In what once was called the NFL's passing era, the Panthers are winning big without great receivers. Their best wideout, Kelvin Benjamin, was injured during the preseason and didn't play. The Panthers are 16-1 without him.
Griffen's emerging leadership
Everson Griffen, who was named to his first Pro Bowl last week, is fresh off his first season as one of four season-long captains. John Holler of Viking Update writes that he sees Griffen's leadership rolling into the start of the offseason.
As an emerging vocal leader of the defense, Griffen was already stressing that players start thinking about their offseason workout regimen now and make sure that the progress they made as a contender for the division crown is just a stepping stone to their defense of their hard-fought division title.
"It's all about the guys in the locker room," Griffen said. "It's up to us to come back in great shape, come back ready to play football and come back ready to execute your assignments. We have to do all the right things this offseason – stay out of trouble, spend time with your family. But it's all about us. We've got to come back, do our job like we did this year and figure out where we went wrong and improve in those areas."
*In two years in the Mike Zimmer defense, the Vikings have proved that they get what his scheme entails and the results on the field aren't about individual statistics. It's about the team concept. *
"Our number one thing here is to be passionate about the game," Griffen said. "Go out there and do your job, finish and leave it out there on the field. That's what we did this year. We've got a bunch of guys on this team that don't play selfish football, that love this team and play each game for one another. That's what we did. We wanted it. We played hard and we've got to learn from this and not feel this way again. This will be motivation. This makes me want to start working out right away."
Special Teams Rankings
Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News has released his annual special teams rankings for the 2015 season and placed the Vikings 10th.
The league's 32 teams are ranked in 22 categories and assigned points according to their standing – one for best, 32 for worst. The Baltimore Ravens finished with the best special teams in the NFL this season with 231 points, followed by the New York Giants (271.5), Jacksonville Jaguars (295) and Cowboys (310.5).
The Vikings were assigned 333 points, which was two shy of Cincinnati in eighth, one shy of Kansas City in ninth and nine points ahead of the Patriots.
The Vikings ranked number one in kickoff returns (28.3 yards) and starting point (the 25-yard line). Click here for the full rankings.