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Mike Zimmer uses naysayers to rile up Vikings

Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer will challenge his players with any criticisms he comes across, and his players have responded. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- A reporter mentioned to Mike Zimmer on Monday that the previous seven Minnesota Vikings teams to travel to Chicago -- six of them coached by men other than him -- had lost at Soldier Field, and Zimmer smiled like a cat about to pounce on a canary.

"I was hoping you'd bring that up," Zimmer said.

In his first two years as head coach, Zimmer has proven he can hit his players' buttons with the precision of a marksman. Sarcastic quips are a favorite tool of his; perceived slights and negative statistics -- even if they're factual -- are treated as fuel for the furnace. Last week, Zimmer had his players revisit last December's 16-14 loss to the Detroit Lions, challenged them to fix several areas from that game, and made sure his players knew the Vikings had won just one division road game since 2009. That streak of futility encompassed three head coaches and scores of different players, but if this group knew that people were talking about it, Zimmer figured it'd rile them up enough to end it.

On Sunday, the Vikings overcame a 14-3 deficit on the way to a 28-19 win in Detroit, improving to 4-2 for the year. And in both his locker room speech and the opening remarks to his news conference, Zimmer brought up how much he'd heard about the streak.

"When people say we lose all of these games, we can’t win a game on the road, we can’t win a game in the division, I just take it personally, I guess," Zimmer said. "Even though I haven’t been around that long. I’m hearing it from 10 years ago, or something they’re telling me."

Zimmer's résumé as a successful defensive coordinator was etched long before he got his first head coaching job in 2014, and he came to Minnesota intent on showing previous prospective employers exactly what they missed by not hiring him for their top job. "I like proving people wrong," he said. "People have doubted me for a long, long time. I hope they keep doubting our football team, because that’s the mentality I’m trying to get them: Say what you want and let’s go prove it."

The nobody-believed-in-us card is a bit of an odd fit for a team that began the preseason demurring its status as a trendy NFC playoff pick, but Zimmer's players seem to be buying into it. "If he hears something that you're not doing this, or the defense isn't doing this well, he'll say it," defensive back Captain Munnerlyn said. "He'll say, 'Hey man, these guys said this' -- right to your face -- 'So what are you going to do about it?' He definitely knows how to motivate some guys, and I think he does a great job at it."

Munnerlyn said Carolina coach Ron Rivera kept the Panthers in touch with their doubters during the 2013 season, when they went 12-4, won the NFC South and earned a first-round bye. There are similarities in Zimmer's approach, which was learned in part from Bill Parcells, and even if the Vikings keep winning, the coach is likely to keep looking for ways he can put the naysayers to use.

(For the record: We've picked the Vikings to win five of their six games this year. We're 5-1 in our picks, with the only incorrect choice being a victory pick before the Vikings' season-opening loss in San Francisco.)

"It's all about where you started," defensive end Everson Griffen said. "People always doubted us, and we're here to prove people wrong each and every day. That's our job as a team, to go out and prove the naysayers wrong. I love the way this team works. I love the way we battle, and if we keep this up, we're going to be a hard team to beat."