Vikings declaw Bengals, clinch NFC North crown

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, right, runs from Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

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 postseason tuneup.

Eric Kendricks had an interception return for a touchdown , Case Keenum passed for 236 yards and two scores, and the Vikings clinched the division title with a 34-7 victory over the depleted and disinterested Bengals on Sunday.

“To guarantee a home playoff game there? I can’t imagine. I have a feeling it’s going to be even more amped up,” Keenum said.

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 consecutive road trips.

“It feels good,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said, “but it was a little bit restrained because there’s still work to do.”

The Vikings were never challenged by a Bengals team missing more than half of its starting defense 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 , 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 year.

“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 Andy 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 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 standout 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 3 minutes were left in the third quarter, thanks to a Vikings defense that was as revved up as ever.

“The Super Bowl is in their home stadium,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “They’ve got everything they want in front of them.”

END ZONE FUN: Murray scored on a short run to cap the opening drive by the Viking, and Keenum found Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph for touchdown passes in the second and fourth quarters.

Rudolph celebrated with a tribute to a better day for the 50-year-old Bengals franchise with his version of the “Ickey Shuffle” that running back Ickey Woods for the 1988 AFC champions.

TORMENTING THE MENTOR: Vikings coach Mike Zimmer won his first regular-season meeting against his old boss, Lewis, who lost to a former assistant for the first time in eight matchups.

Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 2008-13. The Bengals have never won in six all-time visits to Minnesota.

The Vikings were division champions in five of those seasons: 1970, 1989, 1998, 2009 and 2017.

UP NEXT

Vikings: Travel to Green Bay to face the Packers (7-7) on Saturday night, with their sights set on securing a first-round bye for the playoffs.

Jaguars 45, Texans 7 — The Jacksonville Jaguars are returning to the playoffs for the first time in a decade thanks to a 45-7 drubbing of rival Houston on Sunday.

Once the NFL’s poster child for futility and a punchline for potential relocation, the Jaguars (10-4) are now one of the league’s top turnaround stories.

Blake Bortles threw three touchdowns passes, including two to a reserve receiver who slept in his car earlier this season. The Jaguars won for the seventh time in eight games to clinch a postseason berth for the first time since 2007.

Bortles finished with a season-high 326 yards and the best QB rating (143.8) of his career, including 186 yards and a touchdown to rookie Keelan Cole. Primary punt returner Jaydon Mickens, who stepped in for injured starter Marqise Lee in the first quarter, caught four passes for 61 yards and two scores against the Texans (4-10).

The Jaguars were an NFL-worst 22-74 over the previous six years, more a laughingstock than a postseason contender.

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