Mike Zimmer won a Super Bowl (XXX as an assistant with Dallas) in his second season ever in the NFL. He's worked ever since to return to the sport's greatest stage.
Zimmer logged 20 years as an assistant in the pros before the Vikings did what other teams didn't: hiring him as a head coach.
After a 7-9 season filled with multiple challenges in 2014, Zimmer has led Minnesota to a 10-5 mark with one game left in the regular season, a shot at the NFC North title and the Vikings first postseason berth since 2012.
Minnesota will visit Green Bay at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football (7:30 p.m. CT), and the winner will earn the opportunity to host a Wild Card game as the No. 3 seed in the NFC Playoffs.
"If you would've told me in July that we have a chance, last game of the year on January 3rd to play for a division title, I would've been excited about it," Zimmer said after the game. "It's still going to come down to executing, and doing things right. We've played well on the road this year, but we haven't beat Green Bay. Something we've got to get done."
Multiple writers took a look at the transformation that's occurred with Zimmer at the helm, including Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
*There will be plenty of buildup for that game. But it's also worth reflecting on what Zimmer has managed to do in a short time before looking ahead. *
The Vikings finished 5-10-1 in Leslie Frazier's final season as coach in 2013 and then went 7-9 in Zimmer's first season.
Zimmer's team easily could have fallen apart, but that did not happen. There was a mental toughness to this organization that hadn't been seen in several years in part because Zimmer is a defensive guy and teams built on defense aren't soft.
Ben Goessling of ESPN.com noted that the Vikings allowed a league-worst 480 points and 6,362 yards in 2013. This year, the Vikings have allowed 289 points and 5,157 yards two years into Zimmer's tutelage.
*The former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator came to Minnesota with a track record of success, and a modicum of confidence. In his introductory news conference, Zimmer dubbed himself a "fixer," saying, "Here is what I do: I fix stuff. I am going to go out and I am going to fix this." *
On Sunday night, with the Vikings needing a win to clinch a playoff spot, Zimmer gave no quarter against a New York Giants team missing its best offensive weapon. He put nose tackle Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr and safety Harrison Smith back in his lineup after all three players had been unavailable for the better part of the Vikings' last three games because of injuries, and banked on his defense -- healthy for the first time in a month -- being able to torment Eli Manning.
Return of safeties helps
Part of the torment of Manning came from interceptions by safeties Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith, who both missed time earlier this month because of injuries.
Mark Craig of the Star Tribune pointed out that just three weeks after the Vikings had no safeties on the active roster available for practice, the starters made their presence known.
"I remember that day," strong safety Andrew Sendejo said after Sunday night's 49-17 playoff-clinching victory over the Giants at TCF Bank Stadium. "It's good to be healthy again. And it's really good to have No. 22 [Harrison Smith] back out there again."
How'd they do? Well, at the four-minute mark of the second quarter, Giants quarterback Eli Manning had completed five passes. Three of them went to his receivers for 62 yards. The other two went to Sendejo and Smith for 44 yards, including the play of the game, Smith's 35-yard pick-six, which gave the Vikings a 16-3 lead and a soul-crushing two-score lead over a Giants team that looked cold and had already been eliminated from the playoffs a day earlier.
Vikings surging, but hurdle remains
Tom Pelissero of USA TODAY Sports asked why Sunday's Border Battle that will decide the NFC North will be different than recent series history that's been written by Green Bay more times than not.
"I think we have a good idea of who we are now," Vikings safety Harrison Smith told USA TODAY Sports late Sunday night. "We're a tough team, and we know our identity, whereas – I've only been here four years – but I feel like before, we were just kind of playing."
Sitting at his locker, Smith paused, smirked and added: "They still beat us pretty bad last time we played them."
*There's the rub for these Vikings, who clinched a playoff berth by demolishing the Odell Beckham Jr.-less New York Giants 49-17 on Sunday night, hours after the Arizona Cardinals got finished sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times and whacking the Packers 38-8. *
*The quality of opponents – one eliminated from playoff contention Saturday and without its best player, the other on a nine-game winning streak with a shot at the NFC's No. 1 seed – can't be overlooked. *
*Still, things seem to be setting up for the Vikings to have a shot at the upset, the No. 3 seed and a home playoff game. Then again, things seemed to set up well with the Packers on a three-game losing skid last time, before they came here and rolled 30-13 on Nov. 22. *
"Nothing's different until we go over and prove it in the game," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We thought we had a good position to try and take them down at our place here a month ago, whatever it was. We just made way too many mistakes and played uncharacteristically."