EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has put an extreme emphasis on building a team to win in the fourth quarters of games.
It turns out, there could be overlap for winning the NFC North, especially if the Vikings keep running the ball the way they have in final periods.
Adrian Peterson rushed 10 times for 73 yards in the fourth quarter, highlighted by a 35-yard touchdown that put Minnesota up by 17 with 4:15 remaining. The defense allowed a touchdown, at last, in the final 90 seconds of the game, but the Vikings claimed a 20-10 victory to improve to 8-3.
Zimmer arrived in Minnesota in 2014 after helping the Bengals make the playoffs four times in six seasons as their defensive coordinator. He began improving the Vikings defense that was near the bottom in multiple statistical categories in 2013, but Minnesota was without Peterson for all but one game in Zimmer's debut season.
Peterson is leading the NFL with 1,164 yards on 237 attempts and has eight touchdowns. He's rushed 51 times for 394 yards (7.73 per carry) in fourth quarters and overtime this season.
The combination of a tough defense and relentless running game could help the Vikings be bold in cold-weather games.
"I do feel like any time you have a north in your division – NFC North or AFC North – this is a pretty good ingredient going forward when the weather starts getting colder and things like that," Zimmer said Monday of the rushing attack. "And it's a little bit about a mindset too. Since I've walked in here it's about preaching toughness and discipline and accountability and being a smart team and that's kind of who we are right now. The one thing that I've always admired about my dad was that he would change year-to-year based on the team that he had. This is kind of who we are now."
One of the most important statistics for Zimmer is the combination of rushes and completions. The Vikings totaled 39 carries (including three kneel downs in the victory formation by Teddy Bridgewater) and 20 completions on 28 attempts by Bridgewater.
The ratio lends itself to favorable time of possession, which the Vikings won 33:28 to 26:32, helping the Vikings defense stay fresh and the Falcons defense become fatigued.
"It's been helping us out a lot," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "I remember sometimes last year we'd get in the four-minute situation and would need a little more push to get over the edge to get the first down. He's been closing teams out this year and putting the game away for us."
Fullback Zach Line said blockers have noticed a change in defenders as the games go on.
"You can just feel it, the way they're filling the holes, they're not as happy to do it as they were in the first quarter," Line said. "They get in the fourth quarter and start missing tackles and getting tired. You saw that on his long run. He's still 100 percent in the fourth quarter."
Big challenge: Line said the offense challenged itself to rush for 200 yards against a Falcons run defense that entered the game as the stingiest (87.4 yards allowed per game). The Vikings netted 195 before taking three kneel downs for minus-4.
"We wanted to get 200 yards. It's a big goal to set, but set big goals, he wants it and we want it," Line said. "We get stronger as the game goes on. We see the end in sight. We see we have the lead, can hold onto the ball and keep our defense off the field and give them a little break, we're going to pull away with the victory.
"The first time we set it was Oakland, and we did it against Oakland, so then we set it this week," Line added. "We like challenges, and when you get the number one run defense, that's a big challenge. We wanted to put some yards on them on the ground and we did."
The Vikings had a season-high 263 yards against the Raiders and are 8-0 when Peterson rushes 19 or more times this season.
One guarantee: Vikings players said they and Zimmer will maintain focus on bigger goals that remain.
"None of the standings matter if we don't keep winning, so at the end of the day, what we have to do is get ready for Seattle this week," Brian Robison said. "(Being) 8-3 only guarantees you one thing, that you can be .500 at the end of the season."
Anthony Barr, who forced two fumbles, recorded a sack and had a deft pass breakup said Zimmer will tell players, "Good job, but…"
"You can always do better," Barr said. "We're trying to strive for greatness and want to be champions, so we still have a long ways to go, but you've got to be able to finish games.
Barr said there were times when he thought he could have rushed better.
Zimmer said Barr was able to do more this week after he progressed from a hand injury that hampered him in games at Oakland and against Green Bay.
"For two games he basically played one-handed," Zimmer said. "He is feeling much better now and we're always trying to think of ways we can continue to use him."
Munnerlyn, who had one of two interceptions (along with Terence Newman), said the combination of a visit by the Seahawks (6-5) at noon (CT) Sunday and Zimmer will keep the team focused.
"He's not satisfied at all, and I think guys in this locker room are not satisfied," Munnerlyn said. "It's time to move on, and we've got another big task ahead of us. They won the NFC in the past two years to go to the Super Bowl. I think that's Zim.' "