EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Teddy Bridgewater's December display of crispness, accuracy and confidence has given the Minnesota Vikings a noticeable boost. Adrian Peterson has maintained his NFL rushing lead. The special teams have largely kept up their season-long success.
The most important development for Minnesota entering this NFC North championship game at Green Bay and the playoffs that will follow, though, is a defense that's back to full strength. The three standouts who returned to the lineup last week made an obvious impact.
''It's always confidence when you get your starting guys back,'' defensive end Everson Griffen said.
With nose tackle Linval Joseph, outside linebacker Anthony Barr and free safety Harrison Smith at his disposal again, coach Mike Zimmer had far more flexibility in the plays he called against the New York Giants than in previous weeks without them.
''A lot of times I'm thinking, `All right. I want to use this guy to do this. I want to use this guy to do this,''' Zimmer said, adding: ''It goes into the game plan a lot.''
The Vikings clinched their spot in the playoffs by beating the Giants 49-17, with a season-high three interceptions plus four sacks, eight quarterback hurries and seven passes defended. They gave up two long gains in that game, receptions of 50 yards by Rashad Jennings and 72 yards by Rueben Randle, but the rest of the night was one to remember for a unit that has been one of the NFL's best but hasn't produced many dominant performances.
The Giants converted only one of 11 third downs.
''We have a chance to be a good defensive group if we continue to play,'' Zimmer said, measuring his praise as usual.
With Sharrif Floyd sliding over to Joseph's spot while he sat out three games with a toe injury, pass-rushing specialist Tom Johnson took on an elevated role. With Barr out for the majority of the previous three games with knee trouble, rookie Edmond Robinson stepped in. Smith's absence to hamstring and knee injuries created an opportunity for another rookie, Anthony Harris, with cornerback Terence Newman spending some time at safety, too.
For all their abilities to hold their own, particularly in a narrow defeat at Arizona and a resounding win over Chicago, the replacements just can't compare to a trio that was making a strong case for the Pro Bowl until getting hurt.
''It was tough, but that's how it goes. I've been fortunate. It could always be a lot worse,'' Smith said, especially speaking for Joseph and Barr, too.
Zimmer was especially gushing this week about each of his three stars.
- On Joseph: ''He doesn't show up like Harrison or Barr because of the position that he plays, but the things he does helps an awful lot of guys. You see him do really powerful, strong, athletic things.''
- On Barr: ''Some of the things he can do and see and react to, it's pretty special. ... There really is no limit for his athletic ability for him because he has the other intangibles besides just being an athlete.''
- On Smith, specifically his interception return for a touchdown that got the Vikings going against the Giants: ''He's a kid with great vision. Sees things, understands routes.''
All of that ought to help against the Packers, whose sputtering offense was as bad last week as it's been all year. That's hardly solace for the Vikings, with the memory of that 30-13 loss at home to their rival last month still fresh.
''At the end of the day he's still Aaron Rodgers, they're still the Green Bay Packers, and we've got to treat them as such,'' Floyd said.
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