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Mike Zimmer's Minnesota Vikings ready for tough stretch ahead

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Being tied with the Packers for first place in the NFC North was simply a matter of that day's circumstance, veteran Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway surmised after Sunday's overtime victory against St. Louis.

Minnesota's win, coupled with a second straight Packers loss, brought both squads' records to 6-2 -- and potentially changed the paradigm of the NFC pecking order.

To Greenway, the Vikings' new position is a temporary status that leads to no immediate reward -- unless those weak-minded enough view it as an accomplishment, he added.

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Those he referred to weren't among his 52 other teammates or his coaches.

Minnesota, which has posted four straight victories, is fully aware that it has won a lot more than it has lost this season. It also knows its real self will be identified over the next month or so.

Though the line between good and bad teams is incredibly fine, the Vikings have gotten fat so far against opponents with a combined record of 13-28. Through Week 8, the Vikings had faced the easiest schedule in the NFL, based on the combined winning percentage of their opponents. Heading into Week 9, Minnesota's schedule the rest of the way was the most difficult in the league. Still left to play after Sunday's win over the Rams: Oakland, Green Bay (twice), Atlanta, Seattle, Arizona, Chicago and the Giants.

"We just have to look at every Sunday, not skip past that," said nose tackle Linval Joseph, who quietly has emerged as one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL this season.

Of course, while we view the Vikings' upcoming opponents as rugged, those teams have to be looking at Minnesota the same way.

No, the Vikings don't have a signature win yet and haven't won pretty, but they've won the games they should have -- and they've won in the manner of a playoff team.

They pound the ball with tailback Adrian Peterson, who gained 125 yards and scored a touchdown against a strong -- but nicked-up -- Rams defense. The offensive line seems to have found its way. Rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs has emerged as a big-play threat. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's use of multiple-tight end personnel in pass and run sets crosses up defenses.

"A couple games we've played hesitant, and that's not our character," offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. "If we do our job up front, we open holes for Adrian, and that helps Teddy [Bridgewater], being a young quarterback. Having that run game in our type of offense gets everything flowing."

Added Peterson, who leads the NFL with 758 rushing yards and has tacked on 17 catches for 125 yards: "Coach Turner knows that when all else fails, we can run the ball."

Bridgewater's steady development this season has briefly been stunted by a concussion sustained against the Rams on a hit by cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Bridgewater was sliding, a signal that he was taking himself out of the play as a runner, but Joyner lowered his shoulder and clipped Bridgewater's head, bouncing it off the turf and briefly knocking Bridgewater out.

Coach Mike Zimmer said Monday that Bridgewater passed his initial concussion tests and is feeling better. He has one more to go before being cleared.

All signs indicate he'll be ready to play at Oakland on Sunday against another emerging team with its own promising young QB in Derek Carr. Carr was drafted in the second round last year with the 36th overall pick -- just four spots behind Bridgewater, who was the last player picked in the first round.

The scary sequence that led to Bridgewater's injury and its aftermath could turn out to be a defining point in Minnesota's season.

Zimmer, a lovable Grinch whose approach is unpolished but endearing, ripped the play, the player and the Rams' style. He stood up for his guys and didn't back down. (For the record, St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher responded Monday to Zimmer's criticism by saying that "a good lesson to be learned from this is control your emotions immediately after the game and go back and look at the tape before you jump to conclusions," and that he doesn't "worry about the manner in which our players play." NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport also reported that Joyner won't be suspended for the hit, though he might still face a fine.)

And with Zimmer's team adopting his persona, players won't back down, either.

The second-year head coach is a defensive guy by résumé, but a leader by example. Everywhere Zimmer's been on staff (in Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati), his units have gotten better -- as have, more importantly, his players. His honesty, for the most part, has generated a respect from his charges to the point they'd do just about anything for him.

Case in point: Joseph. Entering 2015, he'd been in the league for five seasons, including four with the Giants, most quietly productive. After a slow start last season, he got on track, and this season, he's been dominant.

Recently, Zimmer called the sixth-year pro the best nose tackle he's ever coached. In response, Joseph had 10 tackles, a half-sack, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries against the Rams. He served as the main brick in the stonewall front that held St. Louis rookie running back Todd Gurley -- who'd had 125-plus yards in each of his previous four starts -- to 89 yards on 24 carries. Joseph has been the cog that has made the Vikings' defense one of the best in the NFL (Minnesota ranks second in points allowed).

"That meant a lot when Coach Zimmer said that," Joseph said before Sunday's game. "Everybody's helping me be a better player. We are holding each other accountable. Guys are doing their job, and that creates opportunities for me. If everybody wasn't doing his job, I would not be having the season I'm having. I'm just thankful that we're all playing good football right now."

Besides 8-0 Cincinnati, New England and Carolina, nobody is playing better than the Vikings. Coming into the season, they were a trendy pick as a wild-card team. At the season's mid-point, they've positioned themselves to challenge for the NFC North.

The bar continues to be re-set each week.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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