Congratulations to the champion of the NFC North, the Minnesota Virus.
The local football team went through the division like malware, frying hard drives and forcing hard decisions.
The attack began in October, when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr wrecked Aaron Rodgers’ shoulder, and continued in January as the ease of the Vikings’ division title cost two divisional coaches and one general manager their jobs.
The Vikings are the reason there are no NFC North teams playing this weekend, and their dominance of what promised to be an intriguing division race has altered their opponents’ plans, maybe even prompted mistakes.
After finishing 5-11 and losing twice to the Vikings, the Bears fired coach John Fox. Fox went 14-34 in Chicago. No further analysis is required.
The rest of the wreckage is more intriguing.
The Detroit Lions fired coach Jim Caldwell. The Vikings’ victory at Detroit on Thanksgiving felt pivotal at the time in the division race, and it kept the Lions from winning 10 games. It’s hard to fire a coach who just won 10 games.
Perhaps it should have been difficult to fire a coach who just won nine. Caldwell’s record with the Lions was 36-28, for a winning percentage of 56.3. The Lions haven’t had a coach post a better record over a multiyear stint since Buddy Parker in 1951-56.
Caldwell’s overall coaching record is 62-50. Caldwell also went 5-3 against Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, a candidate for coach of the year in 2017. Caldwell is demonstrably a quality coach, and a franchise known for decades of ineptitude just fired him. If the Vikings had lost at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, the Lions may not have done them this favor.
Entering the 2015 season, the Green Bay Packers had won the NFC North in eight of the 13 years of its existence. The Bears had won it three times and the Vikings twice — once with a re-gifted former Packers quarterback, Brett Favre.
Since 2015, the Vikings have won the division twice in three seasons, and had their offensive line remained functional last year after they started 5-0, they might be riding a streak of three straight North titles.
When Barr injured Rodgers on Oct. 15, the Packers’ flaws were exposed, like a leading man who ventures into bright sunlight before visiting his makeup artist.
With a supposed array of talent at wide receiver and a supposed offensive guru as head coach, the Packers without Rodgers scored 320 points, fewer than the Titans, Texans, 49ers and Bucs. Backup quarterback Brett Hundley failed while Vikings backup Case Keenum thrived. The Packers’ weak overall roster, from Hundley through a porous defense, led to General Manager Ted Thompson being demoted and defensive coordinator Dom Capers being fired.
Had Rodgers remained healthy and taken the Packers to the playoffs again, it’s hard to imagine making such sweeping changes.
The Vikings’ three-year run of success has justified the hiring of Zimmer and the retention of General Manager Rick Spielman, who, unlike Thompson, was willing and able to make up for draft mistakes with shrewd free agent signings.
The Vikings’ success also completes the NFL’s circle of life and cycle of demise.
In 2010, Vikings coach Brad Childress was nine months removed from coming one play from competing in a Super Bowl that his team probably would have won. He — or at least his team — had persuaded Favre to return for another try. On Oct. 24, the Vikings lost, 28-24, at Lambeau Field to fall to 2-4. On Nov. 21, the Packers won, 31-3, in the Metrodome, and Childress was fired.
On Oct. 27, 2013, nine months after taking a seemingly average team to the playoffs, Leslie Frazier lost to the Packers 44-31 at the Metrodome, dropping the Vikings to 1-6. Frazier would rally that team, which went 4-3-1 in its last eight games, but the poor start and that Packer loss had the Vikings’ brain trust analyzing replacements before the season ended.
Zimmer replaced Frazier, and four years later laid waste to the division, with help from Barr’s controversial hit.
Before Zimmer, the Vikings haven’t had someone affect change among their foes so dramatically since Randy Moss prompted the drafting of large defensive backs across the Upper Midwest.