EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – The yearlong debate between the Kendricks brothers – Eric the Viking and Mychal the Eagle – will be settled Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
“We’ve been kind of talking trash back and forth all season about how good our defenses are and it helped us both to get to the position where we are,” Eric the Viking said last week as his team prepared for its NFC championship showdown with the Eagles.
Asked inside the Vikings locker room at the team’s Winter Park training facility which defense was better, Eric, the younger of the Kendricks brothers, smiled before shooting an “are-you-serious” look at the questioner. Naturally, Eric the Viking casts his vote for Minnesota, and based on the body of work during the 16-game regular season, he would win the argument.
The Eagles, in fact, have not faced a defense this good in the postseason since that infamous NFC championship game against Tampa Bay that closed down the football activities at Veterans Stadium on Jan. 19, 2003. That Tampa Bay defense allowed the fewest points and the fewest yards in the NFL that season before shutting down Donovan McNabb and the Eagles on their way to the Super Bowl title.
This Minnesota defense can boast the same thing. The Vikings allowed just 15.8 points and 275.9 points per game. They weren’t quite as good on the road, surrendering 19.5 points and 302 yards per game. The Eagles, on the other hand, allowed just 13.4 points and 280.6 yards per game at home during the regular season and followed that up with a dominating effort in a 15-10 win over Atlanta last weekend at the Linc.
The Vikings’ dominating defense was on display in the first half last Sunday, when it held Drew Brees and New Orleans scoreless. The Saints, however, rebounded in the second half for 24 points and finished the day with 358 yards, the second-highest total surrendered by the Vikings this season.
“We were a great defense last year and the year before,” Vikings all-pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “I mean we’ve been playing good as a D for [a while] now. But now we’re winning more than we’re losing and that’s the only reason people started to notice our defense, because we’re winning.”
The Vikings were neither a very good defense nor a very good team when Mike Zimmer arrived as the head coach in 2014. The season before, they had given up a league-high 30 points per game, which cost former Eagles assistant Leslie Frazier his job as Vikings coach.
Zimmer, 61, went to the Vikings with one of the most impressive defensive resumes in the NFL. His six previous seasons had been spent as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, and in four of those six years, the Bengals were in the top 10 in both points and yards allowed. He was also Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator with Dallas in 2003, when the Cowboys allowed the second-fewest points in the league.
The Vikings already had talent in place on the defensive side of the ball when Zimmer arrived. Three-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith had been taken in the first round of the 2012 draft, Rhodes was taken in the first round in 2013, and three-time Pro Bowler Everson Griffen already had played four seasons, although never as a starter.
Griffen, 30, believes Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards, who also arrived in 2014, took the Vikings defense to an elite level.
“He’s Zimmer and he’s not going to take no stuff,” said Griffen, whose career-high 13 sacks lead the Vikings. “He’s going to make you be accountable. He’s going to make you become a smart football player. He even brought us all the right coaches to help us with that. We became students of the game. I think that’s how I grew so much. You learn how to study the tape; you learn tendencies and protections. You just learn how to play football better. That’s what [Zimmer] did here. He brought in the studying part of the game.”
It also helped that Zimmer brought in some exceptional defensive talent. Before his first season, Zimmer and Vikings general manager Rick Spielman added outside linebacker Anthony Barr with the ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft. Barr was named to his third straight Pro Bowl this season. The Vikings’ first big free-agent signing on the defensive side during the Zimmer era was former Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who made the Pro Bowl last season.
The building on defense continued in 2015, when the Vikings selected cornerback Trae Waynes in the first round and Kendricks in the second round. Now, the Vikings have five first-round picks and two second-round picks on their starting defense.
Steadily since the arrival of Zimmer and Edwards, the Vikings have become a defensive beast. They were 11th in points allowed and 14th in yards allowed in 2014. The next year, they won the NFC North for the first time in six years while allowing the fifth-fewest points in the league. Last season, they allowed the sixth-fewest points and the third-fewest yards, but they squandered a 5-0 start and failed to make the playoffs.
This year, during the regular season, the best defense in football belonged to the Minnesota Vikings, no matter how much Mychal the Eagle wants to argue it. That’s not to say that the Eagles defense is not good or even great. Mychal has a chance Sunday to win the postseason argument, which is surely the one you want to win.
“It’s going to come down to the tale of two defenses,” Griffen said.
There seems to be little doubt about that.