In 2014, I made a rather ill-advised prediction: that one of Minnesota’s four major men’s sports teams would win a championship within the next 4 years. Since then we’ve seen the Minnesota Lynx win some WNBA championships and become a real dynasty (appearing in the finals 6 times and winning 4 championships since 2011!), but there had been little movement for the Vikings, Timberwolves, Twins and Wild.
But ladies and gentlemen,
“I come back to you now … at the turn of the tide.”
Yes, the past year has featured some very exciting developments for the big four Minnesota teams. With time winding down for my prediction to come true, how are we looking? Let’s take a quick run around the Minnesota sports landscape for some updates.
For a while it looked like the Wild were our best hope for a championship. The “Skate-riots” (a play on Patriots) were a budding NHL super team that would surely deliver some deep playoff runs and maybe even an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Well, the hype-train got switched to a much slower track and the buzz surrounding this team has turned into a murmur at best. They’re in the midst of a middling season again now and it would seem that our hopes for a Cup are not going to be realized this year without a significant turnaround. And that’s the extent of my attention on this team.
Going into the 2017 season, a rebuild was underway. The Twins got some new front office voices and shopped some of their talent while betting on the futures of some great young players. It was the right thing to do after a disastrous 2016 season. Then something peculiar happened – this iteration of the Twins turned out to be good! Despite some lingering pitching trouble, the young players like Byron Buxton ascended to incredible heights and veterans bounced back from rough 2016 seasons. They even made it to the Wild Card play-in game, where they lost to the Yankees. Still, it was a completely unexpected success story of a season, giving hope that the retooled front office had a plan that would work rather quickly. Was the season a blip on the radar or an actual first step towards relevance? Next season will help answer that question. Could the Twins win it all in 2018? The odds are definitely not in their favor, but the future is a lot brighter than it was a year ago.
I wrote last year about the furious, win-now moves that Tom Thibodeau enacted in the off season. Bringing in a super star like Jimmy Butler and some grizzled veterans like Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford signaled that Thibs wasn’t ready to concede the next few years to the Warriors and Cavs. He thought his young guys just needed some more positive peer pressure to buy into his master system. So far, the season has proved that the plan can work at least in the short term. The Wolves are sitting in the 4th spot in the tough Western Conference and it seems almost assured that their long, long playoff drought will finally end this season. That in and of itself is a huge success for this franchise. But Thibs certainly won’t be satisfied with a playoff berth and a first round exit. He believes that this team can contend for a title and soon.
Based on the season so far, it’s clear that they are still a work in progress. They’ve dropped games to lowly opponents from time to time and streaky shooting and foul trouble have hampered Wiggins and Towns. Injuries have also be a bit of a problem in this young season. Still, as the team gradually begins to see Butler as their centerpiece, they will only get better. I see them reaching the playoffs (for the first time in TWELVE YEARS!) as a 4 or 5 seed and winning their first round series. From there, the rest of the West might be too tough to break through without an injury on the other side. I’m not predicting a Finals appearance this year, but it’s certainly on the table for 2-3 seasons from now.
Which brings me to the actual best hope for nailing my prediction by the end of 2018:
As a Vikings fan, I’m always ready for the other shoe to drop. This franchise, for whatever reason, has a way of dangling some hope out there and then knocking the wind out of you with a lead pipe to the gut when you finally decide to reach out for it. But this season feels different.
The team opened the season with a masterful win over the Saints led by Sam Bradford, the player we acquired at great cost last season after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic, non-contact knee injury in training camp. Bradford looked ready to pick up where he left off last year with pinpoint accuracy in his passes and no mistakes. Plus, rookie running back Dalvin Cook carved up the Saints and looked like a rookie of the year candidate. But it didn’t take long for the Vikings to slowly reach for the pipe in their back pocket. Bradford’s knee became a problem and he hit the IR, leaving the team in the care of technically 3rd string QB Case Keenum. Then Dalvin Cook tore his ACL on a non-contact play in a week 4 loss to the Lions at home.
But this season just feels different!
The Vikings didn’t crumble under the weight of these problems like they did last year. Case Keenum put together the best season of his career, doing his best Bradford impression with accurate passes and few mistakes, plus mobility that Bradford only dreams of. The re-tooled offensive line played extremely well and WR Adam Thielen broke out in a big way. And then there’s the defense, which is probably the best unit front-to-back that we’ve ever seen in Minnesota. The Vikings rang up a 13-3 record and earned a first round bye in the playoffs along with the Eagles (who became very vulnerable when star QB Carson Wentz tore his ACL late in the season).
And it just so happens that the Super Bowl is in Minneapolis this year.
Something about this season just feels different!
The Vikings defense is the best in the game, from the line to the safeties. The offense is coolly efficient with a thunder/lightning RB combo, smart and athletic WRs and a QB on a hot streak. The fact that the Super Bowl is in their home stadium is just another incentive to get there and make history.
So I refuse to be the Minnesota sports fan who can’t enjoy the success because he’s bracing himself for a hit to the stomach.
These are not the 1998 Vikings (Gary Anderson missed FG at home against the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2001 Vikings (41-0 loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2009 Vikings (Favre interception / 12 men penalty against Saints in the NFC Championship Game). These are not the 2015 Vikings (Blair Walsh missed easy FG against the Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium in the Wild Round).
In the words of Kylo Ren:
These are the 2017 Vikings!
And they just might be headed to Valhalla.