The Vikings eight-game win streak was snapped by the Panthers Sunday in a hard-fought battle.
Minnesota (10-3) retains its position at the top of the NFC North, however, currently three games ahead of Detroit and Green Bay, who both hold 7-6 records.
And while the Vikings lost their No. 1 seed spot in the NFC when the Eagles defeated the Rams Sunday afternoon, they haven't been written off as a potential conference favorite. Philadelphia officially clinched the NFC East division with the win, but a knee injury to Carson Wentz leaves some questions on how the NFC will play out through the final three games of the season.
Eight ESPN NFL writers were asked to weigh in on their pick for the top NFC team, and five pegged Minnesota. Field Yates wrote the following:
Minnesota has shown a resilience – despite the Week 14 result – throughout the season that is difficult to ignore. The Vikings offensive line has been dramatically improved this year and, if it gets back to full health down the stretch, should further fortify the running game. I also still believe Philadelphia has a strong enough roster to make a deep postseason run.
Mike Clay said that he's not going to "throw in the towel" on a talented Eagles team but added that he feels Minnesota is a "well-built team" that holds the upper hand.
The Saints, Rams and Seahawks are in the conversation, but I'm hard-pressed to go against a Vikings squad with many impressive statement wins, including against the Falcons, Ravens, Rams and Saints. Minnesota has a terrific defense, a productive offense and a December schedule (Bengals, Packers, Bears) that should put them at least at 12-4 and with a first-round bye. That will be the edge the Vikings need in order to [become] the first team ever to play in the Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Mike Sando, Kevin Seifert and Seth Walder also chose the Vikings. Matt Bowen selected the Saints as the top NFC team, while Dan Graziano and Aaron Schatz said the Eagles will keep control of the No. 1 seed.
Goessling evaluates Vikings defense among the greats
The Vikings defense under Head Coach Mike Zimmer has been earning respect and recognition across the league for the past couple of seasons.
This season, however, it's developed to prompt comparisons to other elite defensive units from the modern-day NFL. Ben Goessling of the *Star Tribune *recently spoke with a number of individuals about how Minnesota's defense stacks up; he posted his article Saturday morning. One person who weighed in was Greg Cosell, NFL Films senior producer, who broke down a play from the Week 13 Falcons game in which safety Andrew Sendejo read a play and cut off Julio Jones' dig route.
"Sendejo read it the whole way," Cosell told Goessling. "He attacked the dig, so [Falcons QB Matt] Ryan couldn't throw the ball. He had to check it down. That's the kind of thing that gets totally overlooked, because it becomes a 6-yard play, but when they call that play, they're thinking they're going to hit Julio on the deep dig for 25 yards.
"That's just understanding, recognition, savvy," Cosell added. "It's not sexy, but that's the way they play."
Knock them for blandness if you like, but doubt them at your own peril. The Vikings defense is putting together a résumé that compares favorably to that of most 21st-century Super Bowl teams.
Goessling also asked for insight from Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera via a conference call with Twin Cities media last week. Rivera is well-acquainted with the earmarks of a great defense, having been a linebacker on the 1985 Bears team.
Asked this week what the Vikings need to do to put themselves in the pantheon of great defenses, Rivera pointed not to the Bears' panache but to their postseason production.
"In the last couple years, you've noticed they've gotten progressively better," Rivera said. "They're very consistent. They're a very aggressive, attacking defense. But, the hallmark will be if they win their division, win in the playoffs, get themselves to the Super Bowl, I think people will talk about them among the great defenses. Do they have the potential? Most certainly."