OAKLAND, Calif. -- Mike Zimmer's biggest challenge this week is making sure his Minnesota Vikings players "don't take the cheese."
What's the cheese? Teddy Bridgewater says Zimmer preaches to his players not to believe everything they hear. Particularly how great they are. That's the cheese. The message is clear every Wednesday when Zimmer presents to the team. He'll list stats based around what the Vikings have yet to accomplish, what they haven't managed to do. Think about numbers on the Vikings' bad record against winning teams, or how poorly they've done on the West Coast, or how they've struggled coming out of bye weeks.
Sunday's 30-14 victory in Oakland twists the state of that cheese just a little bit. The Vikings are 7-2, leading the NFC North by one game. Next Sunday, they host the Green Bay Packers, who now, suddenly, are in the trail position. As a team, the Vikings are peaking. As a team, the Packers are slumping. All of a sudden, a Vikings team considered to be a young squad aiming for a wild card can take a commanding position as a potential division winner.
Of course, Zimmer offered one word about the meaning of the Vikings' moving into first place in the NFC North. "Nothing," he said.
"It [first place] doesn't matter," Zimmer said. "It matters at the end of the year. That's the only time I care about it. Right now, we're just trying to compile as many wins together and add them up at the end of the year.''
The deeper we go into the 2015 season, the more we find out some initial thoughts about the Vikings were wrong. For instance, this season was supposed to be the season to prove Teddy Bridgewater was a good young quarterback who could help the Vikings become a wild-card team. The return of Adrian Peterson after 15 missed starts last year was supposed to give Bridgewater some needed cover. But what we are finding out is that Vikings are simply a well-built football team that goes beyond Bridgewater and Peterson.
Zeroing in on Bridgewater and Peterson was just the cheese, so to speak. The win over the Raiders again proved that this is a balanced squad, effective on offense, defense and special teams.
"I think that's how our team is built,'' Zimmer said. "We've played great on special teams all year long. We've played good on defense for the most part. Offensively, we had our spurts, but I expect them to continue to get better. Towards the end of the year last year, we got better with everything. The team that plays the best on Sundays wins, not the most talented team, but that's always what it is. People always say you can't win on the road, you can't do this. But it's not about where you play, it's about how you play.''
The Raider win was a team win for the Vikings. Peterson rushed for 203 yards -- a huge chunk coming on an 80-yard run -- as the Vikings won the ground game. Bridgewater did a nice job on checkdowns, avoiding the rush and moving the football. The defense limited the Raiders and red-hot Derek Carr to 14 points. Cordarrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. It was all there.
Zimmer came to the Vikings with a vision, and general manager Rick Spielman respects Zimmer's approach and has helped build a roster that gives Zimmer plenty of options. Here are some examples.
• The Vikings are six deep at wide receiver. Spielman picked up Mike Wallace in a trade to be a deep threat. Fifth-round pick Stefon Diggs blossomed quickly and became a starter. Charles Johnson was plucked off the street and was good enough to start. Patterson hasn't lived up to his first-round selection, but he can make a big reception or a long return. Jarius Wright was valuable enough to receive a contract extension. Adam Thielen can make some plays.
• Zimmer inherited a depleted linebacking corps last year. Since then, the Vikings drafted Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Brandon Watts. They were able to trade Gerald Hodges, thanks to depth. They've also brought in veteran Jason Trusnik.
"I think we are still trying to figure out how to win, how to travel and how to win on the road,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We're coming along, but we are still trying to find an identity. We know we are going to run the football. ... We play well in all three phases. We try to push pressure on people on every phase and make them play for four quarters.''
Greenway made a special point of discussing special teams with me, and brought up the Patterson touchdown. That's interesting, because special teams has been special for the Vikings for some time. When he took over, Zimmer made the wise move of keeping special teams coach Mike Priefer. Why mess with it? Since Priefer came to the Vikings in 2011, the Vikings lead the league with 10 special-teams touchdowns, with another one Sunday.
For now, the first-place Vikings can prepare for a Wednesday of "cheese'' speeches from Zimmer, more reminders of what they have yet to accomplish, as they get ready to host the Packers on Sunday.
Inside the Huddle
• Coming into the season, I thought Sean Payton could change defensive coordinators at the bye week. Well, it's the bye week for the New Orleans Saints and I don't expect Rob Ryan to survive the bye. The 47-14 loss yesterday was the ultimate embarrassment for the franchise. The Redskins gained 514 yards. In 2012, the year before Ryan joined the Saints, the defense gave up 440.1 yards a game. This year, it's 424.7 and they are giving up 293.7 a game through the air. Payton has Dennis Allen on staff to take over.
• No surprise that Gary Kubiak is sticking with Peyton Manning at quarterback after his worst professional start. Manning was benched in the 29-13 loss to Kansas City after going 5-for-20 for 35 yards and four interceptions. The Broncos are trying to make the Super Bowl, and it's Manning or bust. Unfortunately, Manning's bad play shows he's at the end and probably should be benched, if this were a normal situation. "I had a bad game and I'm sure what else you can say about that,'' Manning said. "Whether it was because of injuries or my poor decision-making." He has 17 interceptions this year in nine games.
• "All he needed was the phone booth and a cape,'' Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ramon Foster said of Ben Roethlisberger's record-breaking performance in a 30-9 victory over Cleveland. Despite a mid-foot sprain, Roethlisberger bailed out an injured Landry Jones by throwing for 379 yards, the most ever by a quarterback coming off the bench during a game. Wade Wilson had the record at 374 for Minnesota in 1990. The Steelers now head into the bye week with a 6-4 record and better chance of getting a wild card, thanks to Roethlisberger. "I drink a lot of milk,'' Ben said about his recovery.
• Even though he has lost 13 of his past 15 games, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam isn't firing Mike Pettine. He met with Pettine this week on the sorry state of the team. "Where we are right now isn't good enough,'' Pettine said of his 2-8 team. While Johnny Manziel did some good things filling in for injured Josh McCown, he's not scoring enough points to win. It's growing more likely Pettine's seat is red hot after the season.
• Two problems are emerging in St. Louis after a horrible 37-13 loss to Chicago. Nick Foles isn't getting the job done. He's averaging only 18.4 points a game as a starter. It has reached a point where reporters are asking Jeff Fisher if he's considering changing quarterbacks. Foles' completion percentage is 56.6, his yards per attempt are a weak 6.6 and he has only seven touchdowns. The other problem is how injuries are hurting the defense. Defensive end Chris Long remains out and Robert Quinn couldn't do much. The Bears put up 397 yards.
• Jeremy Langford shows great explosion and might be the halfback of the future in Chicago. He had 73 yards on 20 carries against the Rams. Halfback Matt Forte and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery are free agents after the season, and I don't know if the Bears can re-sign both. They should let Jeffery go. Langford still needs to improve his 3.5 yard average on runs; he's not a shoo-in.
• Yes, Tony Romo will be back. But at 2-7, the Cowboys have plenty of drama and some tough games ahead. It's hard to imagine they go undefeated the rest of the way and claim a playoff spot.
• The Green Bay offense is a mess. Aaron Rodgers had to throw 61 passes in the 18-16 loss to Detroit, a team that struggles to stop the run. Rodgers targeted Davante Adams and Randall Cobb 31 times but they had only 15 catches for 132 yards. Once again, the Packers receivers don't separate from coverage.
• Tom Coughlin should have known better. He needed to eat up more of the clock in the fourth quarter, but instead gave Tom Brady 107 seconds to beat him 27-26 with a last-minute field goal drive. The Giants don't have the pass rush -- even with Jason Pierre-Paul back -- to defend fourth-quarter drives by top quarterbacks.
• With Sam Bradford expected to miss a week or two with a shoulder injury and a concussion, Chip Kelly needs to rely on Mark Sanchez to get the Eagles closer to the playoffs. They have hope with an upcoming schedule that includes Tampa Bay and Detroit, but they have to win these games. They play New England in three weeks, and Sanchez cost them a shot to win Sunday.
• Gus Bradley finally is getting some good things going for Jacksonville. Sure, that was a crazy win over the beat-up Baltimore Ravens. But Blake Bortles helped to lead the Jaguars to their first road win since 2013. They are getting better.