MINNEAPOLIS -- If you ever wondered what early-20th-century, leather-helmet football would have looked like in a $1.1 billion angular glass stadium, Sunday was your day to find out. The Minnesota Vikings slugged their way to a 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in a game that was nowhere near as high-flying as the final score makes it appear.
The Vikings kicked six field goals and scored one touchdown, after which the same kicker missed the extra point. The Ravens scored on three field goals (which, combined with Minnesota's six, tied an NFL single-game record) and didn't get the ball inside the Vikings' 20-yard line until the game's final minute, when they scored a touchdown on the last play of the game.
"That was a little disappointing," Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said. "We wanted to keep them out of the end zone."
Point of pride, interrupted. But the Vikings won, and the Green Bay Packers lost. Now Minnesota stands alone in first place in the NFC North at 5-2. The Vikings won this division two years ago, so they know they can win it this year. But they also know that, since QBAaron Rodgers is out for the Packers and injuries have shredded the wide receiver corps here and in Chicago and Detroit, this division is going to have to be won ugly.
"I don't really care what it looks like," Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "And I think Coach (Mike) Zimmer would say the same thing."
No doubt, Adam. The Vikings are playing with their No. 3 choice at quarterback, Case Keenum. They were without top receiver Stefon Diggs (groin) for the second week in a row. And their dazzling rookie running back, Dalvin Cook, is out for the year. But in the NFC North right now, that isn't going to get anyone to feel sorry for you. To wit:
The Packers, preseason favorites and defending division champions, lost Rodgers to a shoulder injury last week. He won't be back until late December at the earliest, which means untested Brett Hundley, playing behind an offensive line that's been decimated by injuries, has to lead Green Bay's point-scoring efforts. Hundley was game Sunday, but the Packers fell short against the rejuvenated Saints defense. So the Packers sit at 4-3 with a head-to-head loss in Minnesota on their record.
The Detroit Lions, on a bye this week, have been playing all season without left tackle Taylor Decker and have struggled to push the ball downfield. They lost top wideout Golden Tate to injury in their most recent game and believe he will miss multiple weeks. Detroit sits at 3-3 after a couple of tough losses to Carolina and New Orleans heading into their bye, but they did beat the Vikings head-to-head.
The Chicago Bears, of whom little was expected, are playing with a rookie quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, and without wide receivers Cameron Meredith and Kevin White. The Bears managed to beat the Panthers on Sunday without scoring an offensive touchdown. Chicago beat the same, sorry-looking Ravens team last week with the help of another defensive score, and are somehow 3-4. The Bears' big problem is that they lost head-to-head games against Green Bay and Minnesota, so even if they can muscle their way into this thing with defense, they have further to go on the tiebreaker front. But with Rodgers out, Bears players are in "Why Not Us" mode as they head to New Orleans next week to try to stop the Saints' NFC North win streak.
And out here in Minnesota they have the Vikings, who've been living on defense for at least three seasons now and know how it feels. They don't know when or whether they'll get back QBs Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater from their knee injuries. They don't know if they can count on any more 113 rush-yard games from RB Latavius Murray. The Vikings do know their defense is one of the toughest in the league and can win games if that's what must be done.
"As an offense, we feel like we're trying even harder to score to reward them for how well they're playing," Thielen said.
The Vikings say they're not thinking about the division race yet. They were 5-0 last season and missed the playoffs. They remember it too well to take anything for granted. They know they're in first place, that they play a winless Browns team in London next week and that they're off the week after that. They understand the opportunity in front of them. They're just determined not to focus on it.
"We can't win the division next week, and we certainly could put ourselves in some trouble," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "For us it's about focusing on each and every week, then come the new year, see where we're at."
They know it's going to be a slog. All four of these NFC North teams surely do. The Vikings happen to be the ones at the top right now, but there's plenty of ugly left to come before this one's over. After the game Sunday, someone asked Zimmer if he felt 5-2.
"Right now, I feel tired," Zimmer said.
Get used to it, Zim. Your team looks good, but the only thing we know for sure about the NFC North right now is that it looks as if it's going to be exhausting.