The Minnesota Vikings would have liked nothing more than to head into their Week 5 bye off an upset of the undefeated Broncos in Denver. It wasn't to be, despite a strong effort from the visitors.
Three thoughts on the game:
1. No such thing as style points: The Broncos' fans all might need prescriptions for blood pressure meds by about Thanksgiving, but they hardly can complain about a 4-0 start—all four wins coming against teams expected, at least in the preseason, to compete for playoff spots (Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit and Minnesota).
Look, this has not been easy. Not even close. Denver needed late defensive stands to take down the Ravens and Vikings, a scoring drive plus Jamaal Charles fumble to beat the Chiefs and held on for dear life through much of the second half in Detroit.
Good teams find ways to win. The Broncos continue to do so, in most instances by asking their defense to bail them out. Which it did again Sunday.
There were a couple of hiccups along the way, like allowing Adrian Peterson's 48-yard touchdown run on a 4th-and-1 early in the fourth quarter. It was a T.J. Ward strip sack of Teddy Bridgewater, though, that sealed the game for the Broncos late, preceded a few minutes earlier by a stand that held Minnesota to three points following an awful Peyton Manning INT.
All told, Denver sacked Bridgewater seven times, highlighted by Ward's late heroics. The Vikings scored 10 in the fourth quarter, but they did not even top 200 yards of offense until that final frame. Manning's offense, meanwhile, found enough in the tank to piece together a game-winning field goal drive after Minnesota tied the game at 20.
This all has been a long way from flawless. But 4-0 is 4-0.
2. The Vikings are growing up in a hurry: The standings show Minnesota as a 2-2 team, quickly fading behind the Packers in the NFC North race. While both of those statements are true, the Vikings have shown plenty in the past three weeks to indicate that they're in the playoff discussion for the long haul, regardless of whether or not they can challenge Green Bay.
Twice Sunday they trailed the Broncos by double digits—13-0 in the first half and 20-10 in the third quarter. Twice they battled back, doing so behind a defense that forced two Manning INTs and a rapidly improving offense.
It goes without saying that Peterson is a critical piece in the offense's chances this season. He found a rather difficult going in Denver, yet still managed to break loose for that momentum-swinging scoring run. Peterson is a home-run threat whenever he touches the ball, and the Vikings have learned from their Week 1 loss in San Francisco by leaning on him whenever possible.
Bridgewater was the better of the game's two quarterbacks Sunday. Feel free to take that as at least a slight knock on Manning, but Bridgewater was sharp throwing the football. Unfortunately for the Vikings, he also committed the turnover in the pocket that ended the game.
The second-year QB may not be playing as well as the hype surrounding him each week could lead one to conclude. However, he is progressing at a nice clip.
Defensively, no one on the Vikings showed more evidence of growth Sunday than linebacker Anthony Barr. He entered the game with a team-leading 20 tackles and paced the way vs. Denver with another six. Better yet, he baited Manning—future Hall of Famer, arguably the smartest to ever play his position—into an interception just before the half, setting up his team for a critical touchdown.
The Vikings are leaning on youth at a number of positions, which bodes well for a promising future that will be here sooner rather than later.
3. Did the Broncos find a little something in the run game?: The numbers are skewed—of the 144 yards Denver rushed for Sunday, exactly half came on a Ronnie Hillman touchdown run. Take that play out and the Broncos produced 72 yards on 23 carries, for a measly 3.1 yards per attempt.
Hardly a breakthrough. That said, both Hillman's run and the Broncos' final drive could hint at better days to come.
Denver's long rush of the season entering Sunday was all of 16 yards, also by Hillman. Even an occasional explosive play out the backfield would take some heat off Manning, both hypothetically and in terms of keeping opposing defenses honest. The Broncos' defense will force turnovers and the passing attack has found a few downfield plays the past two weeks, so runs like Hillman's TD are significant bonuses.
Hillman and C.J. Anderson each provided important touches on the game-winning possession—Anderson moved the chains with a 13-yard run; Hillman carried three times for nine yards. The latter does not sound like much, and Denver obviously would have preferred Hillman pick up something on a 2nd-and-6 attempt, but that the run game got involved is progress in itself.
The Broncos trusted their backs to keep the ball (and the clock) moving. On three of their four carries, they did so. Baby steps.