MINNEAPOLIS -- Six weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings were 2-2, had just lost stud running back Dalvin Cook to a season-ending knee injury and then watched quarterback Sam Bradford drag his bad knee through an ugly first half in a Monday night game at Chicago.
Whatever dread existed then of another season collapsing into a mess of injuries has undergone a remarkable transformation, to the point veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph broke from the one-game-at-a-time ranks Sunday afternoon and acknowledged the Vikings -- yes, the Case Keenum-led, defensively dominant Vikings -- have to be mentioned on any list of contenders.
"We knocked off Green Bay here (on Oct. 15), and at that point, it seems wide open," Rudolph told me as he sauntered out of the locker room after the Vikings grounded the high-flying Los Angeles Rams24-7 for their sixth consecutive win, improving to 8-2. "You look across the league, and especially across the NFC, why can't it be us? Why can't we be the team that has home-field advantage throughout and plays in our own Super Bowl? I think guys are starting to buy into that each and every week, and our young guys, their confidence is growing."
There's a natural hesitancy for this team in particular to look ahead, considering the Vikings started 5-0 last year ... and then lost four in a row on their way to an 8-8 finish. A quick turnaround before Thursday's game at Detroit leaves little time for the Vikings to bask in the glow of how they derailed the NFL's top-ranked scoring offense, and Keenum did enough Sunday against his former team to stave off questions (for at least another four days) about when the Vikings will turn to Teddy Bridgewater.
But consider this: If the Vikings make it seven wins in a row on Thanksgiving Day against the up-and-down Lions, they'd have a three-game lead in the NFC North with five to play and talk would begin to shift toward their chances for a first-round playoff bye.
"It'd mean we balling, baby," said star end Everson Griffen. "It'd be a big game. We'd be balling, you know what I'm saying? Straight up. I'm just keeping it real."
Even if the Vikings lose to the Lions, and then have to play two more tough ones on the road at Atlanta and Carolina, they've demonstrated their formula can work, perhaps into January. And they did it again Sunday against the best opponent they've faced (the Packers, after Anthony Barr's hit left Aaron Rodgers with a broken collarbone, notwithstanding).
Jared Goff and the Rams seemed to be playing downhill on the opening series Sunday, running no-huddle and speeding 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown in 4 minutes, 18 seconds to silence the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4. Over the remaining 55:42, the Vikings' defense -- as loaded with difference-makers as anybody right now -- held the Rams to all of 179 yards, 10 first downs, six punts, a fumble and zero points.
"The first 15 (plays) is always a ride. You never know what you're going to get," linebacker Eric Kendricks told me. "The first three plays, we could've got off the field and didn't. They had a couple good designed plays, quick-hitters, and they drove it on us. They scored, but after that, we got to the sideline, made adjustments, settled down for the most part and just got after it."
Said cornerback Xavier Rhodes: "We was just too hyped. We had to slow it down. Get the calls and just play our defense and be in the right position at all times."
"You kind of think 'boot' on it when it's that slow," Kendricks said, "but that's the hard thing about their offense -- you've got to read your keys and see them fully."
Griffen -- who wasn't his usual self Sunday playing on a bad foot, but said he expects to be 100 percent by Thursday -- said coaches told players to hold their gaps and keep Gurley from bouncing outside. Gurley rushed four times for 20 yards and the TD on the opening series; his other 11 carries went for 17 yards total. Goff was sacked twice, hit several more times with a variety of blitzes, and finished 23-of-37 passing for 225 yards and a 79.2 rating. The Rams' other two best scoring chances before garbage time ended on mistakes by rookie receiver Cooper Kupp: a fumble at the Vikings' 1 forced by safety Anthony Harris and a drop downfield on third down in the fourth quarter.
"We knew it was going to be a battle. We knew how good they were offensively," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "Just [play] each drive. Don't get overwhelmed with the exotic formations, exotic looks, exotic emotions or who's involved in it. Understand who's in the ballgame -- especially when 11 (Tavon Austin) gets in there, it's a whole different type of offensive package. So, it was just about playing smart football and playing hard, playing together."
Meanwhile, the Vikings' offense held the ball for more than 37 minutes. The line increasingly opened lanes for Latavius Murray (15 carries, 95 yards, two TDs) and Jerick McKinnon (14 rushes, 48 yards). Receiver Adam Thielen (six catches, 123 yards, TD) made his case again as one of the NFL's elite receivers. And Keenum avoided turning the ball over against a Rams team that led the league in takeaways, despite walking a tightrope at times with how long he held the ball in the pocket and heaving a few balls toward double coverage that fell harmlessly to the turf. The Vikings might've put away the game sooner if not for Kai Forbath's two missed field goals.
All reports have been positive on Bridgewater's progress in practice as he makes his way back from a major knee injury, but Keenum keeps putting a death grip on the starting job. And whatever uncertainty exists from week to week doesn't seem to be affecting him or the team.
"I don't think we let it," Rudolph said. "I think we just focus on what you can control and that's the way we prepare each and every week. We've got a really good football team and a really good defense, a lot of playmakers on offense, so we can't let that get in the way.
"We've been together for nine weeks," Rudolph added, referring to Keenum's first start in Week 2 after Bradford's initial knee injury, "so he's starting to get on the same page with everybody, and our passing game is only going to continue to get better. The way our offensive line is protecting right now, we can throw the ball on anybody."
Said Griffen: "We're on fire, and we have to keep it on fire."
Kendricks took a more diplomatic tone, but acknowledged where the standards are now.
"Just keep winning, man," Kendricks said. "That's what it's been. That's what it is. Hit 'em in the mouth, run the ball and keep winning."