The returns are in, and the winner is the Minnesota Vikings.
Since 2015, the Vikings are unrivaled in producing non-offensive touchdowns (those scored off kick returns and turnovers) while preventing their opponents from doing the same. The team has exploited multiple scoring avenues while their competitors have encountered nothing but dead ends.
It happened last week in Tennessee. It could happen Sunday night in U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota, under head coach Mike Zimmer, has gotten creative in reaching the end zone. His team has tallied eight touchdowns with its offense resting on the sidelines in its last 17 regular-season games.
Minnesota’s opponents have been shut out in that department.
Interceptions, kickoffs, fumbles and even punts are fair game. The Vikings have returned at least one of each for a score while going 12-5.
Four players went the distance in the first 15 games of last season: Chad Greenway (interception), Harrison Smith (interception), Marcus Sherels (punt) and Cordarrelle Patterson (two kickoffs). Captain Munnerlyn added his name to the list in Week 17.
Munnerlyn’s return in January’s regular-season finale all but doomed the Packers. In a game that determined the NFC North champion, the Vikings cornerback plunged the Packers into a 17-point hole from which they did not recover.
The play came late in the third quarter when Everson Griffen hit Aaron Rodgers as he threw. Though the ball flew forward, the officials ruled it a fumble.
Munnerlyn picked up the loose ball and raced 55 yards to paydirt aided by blocks from defensive back Andrew Sendejo (on Rodgers) and defensive end Brian Robison (on James Starks). Munnerlyn’s first touchdown as a Viking put Minnesota up 20-3 on the way to a 20-13 victory.
Fast forward to last week. The Titans were fleeced not once, but twice in their 25-16 loss to Minnesota. Those returns turned the game around for the Vikings, who had mustered just two Blair Walsh field goals through the first 43 minutes of play.
Griffen again was the trigger. The defensive end pressured Marcus Mariota into a throw that linebacker Eric Kendricks intercepted and returned 77 yards for a touchdown. The score put the Vikings out in front 12-10.
A botched handoff then cost Tennessee early in the fourth quarter. Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray couldn’t make the exchange, and defensive end Danielle Hunter returned the fumble 24 yards to increase Minnesota’s lead to 22-10.
Few plays in football are more deflating than giving up a return for a touchdown. They are quick but hardly painless.
The Vikings haven’t felt the sting in a while. They last time they did, they had the Packers to thank.
On Oct. 2, 2014, Julius Peppers intercepted Christian Ponder and rumbled 49 yards for a touchdown. It was the third of six scores in Green Bay’s 42-10 rout.
Minnesota hasn’t permitted a scoring return since. That’s 28 regular-season games and counting.
Even long returns were hard to come by for Vikings opponents last season. The team allowed only one of more than 50 yards.
Seattle’s Tyler Lockett had the longest punt return (14 yards). San Francisco’s Tramaine Brock had the longest interception runback (26).
Jeff Janis came closest to breaking away. He zipped 70 yards with a first-quarter kickoff in the initial meeting between the rivals Nov. 22.
Janis reached the Minnesota 34-yard line. Mason Crosby booted a 47-yard field goal four plays later in a game Green Bay won 30-13.
The Vikings’ success in the return game in 2015 put them in select company. Rare is the team that scores five or more in a season without surrendering one.
Getting five is doable. On average, it’s been achieved by roughly one out of four teams (323 of 1,349) since 1970.
Shutting out the opposition is more challenging. It has happened 67 times since the NFL-AFL merger.
The Vikings became the 18th team to hit both numbers. Of the previous 17, 15 had winning records, 12 made the playoffs and nine were division champs.
Two — the 1973 Dolphins and 1996 Packers — won the Super Bowl.
Not surprisingly, the Vikings were the only team to score via return in Week 1. Now, the Packers are the only team that can prevent them from adding to their total in Week 2.
NFL record manuals and nflgsis.com served as resources for this article.
Overall: Green Bay leads 58-49-2
At U.S. Bank Stadium: first meeting
Packers: Aaron Rodgers (81-39 overall; 10-5 vs. Minnesota)
Vikings: Sam Bradford (25-37-1; 0-2 vs. Green Bay); Shaun Hill (17-18; 0-1)
The Vikings have had 19 returns for TDs and the Packers 25 in the 55-year regular-season rivalry. Minnesota is 10-7 when grabbing one or more and Green Bay is 18-6. The Packers are 2-0 when both teams score in this manner.
Since 2015, teams that have scored at least three more touchdowns by return than their opponents.
Diff. Team (own-opp) Record
+8 Vikings (8-0) 12-5
+6 Cardinals (7-1) 13-4
+4 Chiefs (6-2) 12-5
+3 Broncos (6-3) 13-4
+3 Eagles (7-4) 8-9
+3 Steelers (3-0) 11-6