Vikings' confident defense stifles Giants, sends team roaring back to playoffs

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings hired Mike Zimmer as their ninth head coach in 2014 after fielding a defense that had allowed a league-worst 480 points and given up 6,362 yards (second-most in the league) in 2013. 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.

The Vikings are headed back to the playoffs behind the muscle provided by a defense that has been built in Zimmer’s image. They throttled the Giants 49-17 on Sunday night, sacking Manning four times and intercepting him three times. Smith’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown put the Vikings up 16-3 in the second quarter, and the Vikings never looked back.

They’ll head to Green Bay next week with a chance to win the NFC North title for the first time since 2009. That year, the Vikings had the quarterback (Brett Favre) to give them the edge over the Packers. This year, they have the defense that might be able to apprehend Aaron Rodgers and get the better of a team that has tormented them for the better part of a decade. If the Vikings are back at TCF Bank Stadium in two weeks, hosting a playoff game as the NFC North champions, they’ll have Zimmer and his defense to thank for it.

What it means: The Vikings are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They’re tied with the Packers atop the NFC North at 10-5, and they’ll play the Packers for the NFC North title next Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

One reason to get excited: The Vikings’ defense was facing a Giants team without Odell Beckham Jr., but the group also got Smith, Barr and Joseph back, and turned in one of its most dominating performances of the year. If the Vikings can repeat the same kind of pressure on Rodgers they produced against Manning, they could have a big payoff waiting for them.

One reason to panic: Minnesota’s offensive line gave up three sacks in the game’s first three quarters, and didn’t get much push for Peterson before his 39-yard gain late in the third quarter (Peterson had only 60 yards on his first 19 carries). Tackles Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings both had rough moments against the Giants, and the Vikings will have to be better against the Packers’ heavy blitz packages.

Fantasy watch: Peterson went over 100 yards for an NFL-best seventh time this season, and the 49th time in his career, regaining the NFL rushing lead from Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin before the final week of the season.

Ouch: Kalil, who gave up a sack and committed a false start penalty that wiped out a Jerick McKinnon touchdown, limped off in the fourth quarter after getting his right foot stepped on. Cornerback Terence Newman also left the game in the fourth quarter because of an illness.

Walsh hits two from 50-plus: Kicker Blair Walsh missed an extra point on Sunday night, but his two field goals of more than 50 yards punctuated a night where he hit all five field goals he attempted. For the season, Walsh has hit 32 of his 37 field goal attempts.

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