Vikings clinch NFC North title

The Associated Press
Dave Campbell

MINNEAPOLIS–The Minnesota Vikings and their loud crowd overwhelmed the Cincinnati Bengals from start to finish, when they put on NFC North champions hats to celebrate the first major milestone of this season–with the hope of several more to come.
From coaches to players to fans, everyone in purple was able to enjoy a post-season tune-up.
Eric Kendricks had an interception return for a touchdown, and Case Keenum passed for 236 yards and two scores, as the Vikings clinched the division title with a 34-7 victory over the depleted and disinterested Bengals yesterday afternoon.
“To guarantee a home playoff game there? I can’t imagine,” Keenum said.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be even more amped up.”
Running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon combined for 37 touches and 242 yards from scrimmage for the Vikings (11-3), who were given quite the reprieve on the schedule after their eight-game winning streak ended at Carolina in the last of three-straight road trips.
“It feels good,” said wide receiver Adam Thielen. “But it was a little bit restrained because there’s still work to do.”
The Vikings never were challenged by a Bengals’ team missing more than half of its starting defence to injuries and met with a morning report by ESPN that head coach Marvin Lewis will not return next season.
Lewis said afterward that’s not true, but the Bengals have all kinds of issues to address after losing their last two games by a combined 67-14.
“It’s the most disappointed I’ve been in the last couple of years,” said wide receiver A.J. Green, who accounted for two of Cincinnati’s three first downs while starting quarterback Andy Dalton was in the game until midway through the fourth quarter.
“It’s been a tough season.”
The game went so smoothly for the Vikings that Teddy Bridgewater even made his grand entrance, which was his first live action in 16 months since a massive knee injury.
Bridgewater’s first pass was intercepted–a high throw that bounced off McKinnon’s hands and into the arms of strong safety Shawn Williams deep in Vikings’ territory.
That set up a short touchdown run by Giovani Bernard to keep the Bengals from being shut out for a second time this season.
“It was great just being out there,” Bridgewater said.
“I have a ton of people to thank for getting me to this point.”
Terence Newman also picked off former teammate Dalton, who went just 11-for-22 for 113 yards before the Bengals (5-9) turned to backup A.J. McCarron after the interception by Williams.
Keenum, meanwhile, completed 20-of-23 passes, including seven easy tosses to McKinnon for 114 yards in the first 100-yard receiving game for a Vikings’ running back since Onterrio Smith in 2004.
With the Bengals already missing both starting cornerbacks and all three regular linebackers, they lost stand-out free safety George Iloka in the first quarter to a shoulder injury.
That left Williams as the only starter in the back seven.
About the only bright spot for the Bengals was five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who sacked Keenum twice in the first quarter.
The Bengals didn’t cross midfield with the ball until less than three minutes were left in the third quarter, thanks to a Vikings’ defence that was as revved up as ever.
“The Super Bowl is in their home stadium,” Bengals’ defensive end Carlos Dunlap noted.
“They’ve got everything they want in front of them.”
Elsewhere in the NFL, Carolina topped Green Bay 31-24, Dallas edged Oakland 20-17, New England nipped Pittsburgh 27-24, Washington beat Arizona 20-15, Baltimore dumped Cleveland 27-10, and Buffalo downed Miami 24-16.
Jacksonville bombed Houston 45-7, New Orleans beat the N.Y. Jets 31-19, Philadelphia topped the N.Y. Giants 34-29, the L.A. Rams routed Seattle 42-7, and San Francisco shaded Tennessee 25-23.