Are Sam Bradford, Stout Defense Enough to Propel Vikings to NFC North Title?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 19, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 18: Quarterback Sam Bradford #8 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates after completing a touchdown pass in the third quarter of the game against the Green Bay Packers on September 18, 2016 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings were always supposed to contend in 2016, but the 2015 NFC North champions were considered contenders heading into the year primarily because of young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and superstar running back Adrian Peterson

Two weeks into the 2016 season, and Bridgewater and Peterson are both injured. The former tore his ACL during a preseason practice session and won't play all year; the latter had just 50 rushing yards on 31 carries before suffering a knee injury Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.

No. 1 overall pick-turned-journeyman Sam Bradford—25 total wins and zero playoff appearances six years into his career—is now the quarterback, and there are clear concerns about the running game regardless of how badly Peterson is hurt. The four-time first-team All-Pro is, after all, 31 years old. 

But the Vikings still lead the NFC North with a 2-0 record after Bradford completed all but nine of his 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns in a turnover-free victory over the rival Packers. 

Despite the fact Peterson and his backups, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon, averaged just 1.85 yards per carry on 20 attempts, Bradford was able to consistently find blossoming second-year wide receiver Stefon Diggs downfield. He completed six passes of 15 yards or more against a defense that ranked sixth against the pass last season.

It was the type of performance that causes you to wonder whether the Vikings—roundly mocked by fans and pundits for giving the Philadelphia Eagles a 2017 first-round pick and a premium pick in 2018 in exchange for a guy many saw as an injury-prone bust—saved their season by acquiring the much-maligned signal-caller.

Sure, it's just one game. Bradford entered the 2016 season with a career passer rating of 81.0, which was lower than the 85.0 rating belonging to Bridgewater's original replacement, Shaun Hill. He missed 31 games during his first five years with the then-St. Louis Rams, and he lasted just a single season with the Eagles. He's never been consistent and has rarely been healthy.

Sam Bradford: Last eight starts
CategoryTotal
Record5-3
Comp.%68.5
TD12
INT4
YPA7.8
Rating99.6
Pro Football Reference

But there were signs Bradford was turning his career around in the second half of his lone season with Philadelphia. During the seven games he played in November, December and January, the 28-year-old completed 68.2 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating of 97.0, earning a fresh two-year, $35 million contract.

It's not a good sign that teams gave up on Bradford in back-to-back offseasons, but the Rams needed a change and the Eagles were investing in the future.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman may have been a desperate man when Bridgewater went down, but he's still a smarter man than you or I, at least when it comes to football. He saw something in Bradford, and that highly criticized move is already causing critics to begin chewing on words such as these.

"We were working a couple of things, but when I asked [tight ends coach] Pat Shurmur, who'd coached Sam twice, he knew how smart he was and what a great addition he would be to our team and our locker room," Spielman told The MMQB's Peter King in early September. "I watched every game Sam played last year, and the last three games, I thought he was playing as well as anyone I saw last year."

Will we begin to see that trade as a stroke of genius? It's far too early to tell, but Bradford has been playing the best football of his career over his past eight games. There's a chance he's a late bloomer, and he seems to be determined to make the most of what might be his final opportunity to live up to the hype that turned him into the top overall pick in 2010. 

In the days leading up to the game against Green Bay, Bradford's father, Kent, told Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he had hardly talked with his son since the trade because he had "immersed himself so much in the playbook."

There'll be hiccups. They could come as early as Week 3, when Bradford and the Vikings travel to face the defending NFC champions, the Carolina Panthers, potentially without Peterson.

When he spoke to King about Bradford's prospects in Minnesota, Spielman noted that he didn't "think he's ever been on a team with a top-10 rushing offense." But Minnesota's rushing offense is far from the top 10, and McKinnon and Asiata aren't likely to change that against Carolina, or against the Houston Texans in Week 5 or the Chicago Bears in Week 8. 

There's also an elephant in the room, and that elephant has torn his left ACL twice. That elephant has been plagued by shoulder injuries, ankle injuries and concussions. If Minnesota's offense is unbalanced and an offensive line that Pro Football Focus last year ranked 31st in the league in terms of pass-blocking efficiency can't keep it together, Bradford could be in trouble. 

For now, though, he's healthy, productive and well-supported by a defense that limited Aaron Rodgers to only 20 completions on 36 attempts for 213 yards on Sunday night, holding the Packers to 14 points. That D caused four fumbles against Green Bay, one week after registering three takeaways in a 25-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans

Only four teams surrendered fewer points than the Vikings last year, and only four teams have given up fewer points per game early this season. They're as intimidating as anyone up front and as deep as anyone on the back end.

To boot, Bradford appears to have a star pass-catcher in Diggs, who had nine receptions for 182 yards and a touchdown Sunday and now has 16 catches for a league-high 285 yards this season. 

It's possible Bradford has never had this much support, and it's possible he's finally becoming a franchise quarterback.

If that's the case, it could make the Vikings extremely dangerous. Dangerous enough, even, to win another NFC North title.

Maybe even to keep winning in January. 

          

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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