The Vikings have their eyes on Sunday's NFC Championship, but they were able to be in this position thanks to a strong regular season.
Minnesota went 13-3 and secured a first-round bye to go along with an NFC North championship, which was the Vikings second division title in three seasons.
A quartet of ESPN beat writers who cover the division recently handed out yearly awards, and it was no surprise that the Vikings nearly swept the honors as quarterback Case Keenum was the Offensive MVP, safety Harrison Smith was the Defensive MVP and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was the Coach of the Year.
The group wrote:
When a team dominates a division like the Minnesota Vikings *did this season, it's no surprise when their players show up in postseason awards. And that's what happened when the ESPN reporters covering the NFC North — Courtney Cronin with the Vikings, Rob Demovsky with the Packers, Jeff Dickerson with the Bears and Michael Rothstein with the Lions — turned in their ballots.*
Keenum finished the season 11-3 as a starter and helped the Vikings win another game by entering just before halftime at Chicago. The Vikings quarterback finished his first season by throwing for 3,547 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
He went from a journeyman quarterback to an MVP candidate in a matter of months. In 26 career games for the Texans and Rams, there was little to suggest that the Vikings would be able to rely on him to not only keep their playoff hopes alive without Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford but also to be one of the reasons they entered the postseason among the Super Bowl favorites in the NFC.
Keenum nearly matched his career touchdown total in one season. He had thrown 24 in his first four seasons combined. He threw 22 this season. He had thrown 20 interceptions before this season. He threw just seven this season. He had won just nine starts in his first four years. He won 11 this year.
No wonder he was the NFC North Offensive MVP.
Smith was snubbed for the Pro Bowl, but he was nearly a unanimous All-Pro selection as he garnered 45 of 50 votes. He led the Vikings with five interceptions, which matched a career high, and also had 93 total tackles (according to coaches' tally) with 10 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
For years now, he has been consistent as one of the last lines of defense against big plays in the Vikings' defense. Harrison Smith is a big hitter. He's got ball skills and is one of the bigger reasons the Vikings won the NFC North this year.
So it's not surprising Smith became ESPN's NFC North Defensive Player of the Year.
Zimmer, meanwhile, has recorded double-digit wins in two of his four seasons in Minnesota.
He is 39-25 as the head coach and improved to 1-1 in the postseason with Minnesota.
In a season when everything could have gone wrong after a year when everything did, Mike Zimmer championed his Vikings to a 13-3 record and postseason return.
Minnesota grabbed hold of the NFC North title without its Week 1 starting quarterback and top draft choice running back after both Bradford and Dalvin Cook's seasons were cut short by injuries. Defensively, Zimmer finally had all the pieces in place to take his unit from good to great to elite, capping off 2017 ranked No. 1 in total and scoring defense while setting a record for the lowest third-down conversion rate (25.2 percent) in NFL history.
Zimmer came into his own in his fourth year as a head coach, and it's not just because of what happened on defense. He should be credited for sticking with the likes of Keenum, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon and not hitting the panic button by demanding a trade or forced signing of a free agent.
Chicago running back Tarik Cohen was the choice for Rookie of the Year.
Coller: Vikings will have their hands full with Eagles D-line
There will be numerous 1-on-1 matchups dissected for the rest of the week as the Vikings and Eagles prepare for Sunday's NFC Championship.
Matthew Coller of 1500ESPN.com noted that one of the most important matchups between the teams could come in the trenches as Minnesota's offensive line squares off against Philadelphia's defensive line.
*The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles are mirror images of each other. Each team's most impressive unit is the defensive line, where they sport multiple superstars. The best player of the group is defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who mauled the Atlanta Falcons in the Eagles' Divisional round victory. *
The Vikings have used four different combinations of interior offensive linemen in the last five games. Head coach Mike Zimmer said he was happy with the decision to move right tackle Mike Remmers to left guard for the first time in his NFL career, so it appears he will start there again against the Eagles along with Pat Elflein at center and Joe Berger at right guard.
Coller noted that Cox could be the biggest headache for the interior linemen for the Vikings. He has 34 career sacks and nine forced fumbles in six seasons with the Eagles.