Keys for Vikings to win the NFC North
Well, here we are again. Eleven weeks into the NFL season, it’s a two-team race for the NFC North.
Chicago’s awkward debacle between quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and suddenly not-so-genius head coach Matt Nagy might be the messiest situation in the division. And after starting the season 2-0-1, Detroit has lost six of its last seven games will not be a factor, yet again, especially with no timeline for injured quarterback Matthew Stafford to return to the field.
That leaves the Minnesota Vikings (8-3) and Green Bay Packers (8-2).
The Vikings go into their bye week a half game behind Green Bay, but the division could be tied by the time Minnesota returns to the field. The Packers clash with NFC-leading San Francisco (9-1) on Sunday night, a game the current division leader could definitely lose on the road.
No matter the result, Minnesota and Green Bay will meet again Dec. 23 on Monday Night Football at U.S. Bank Stadium in a game that obviously has monster division title implications.
So, as the Vikings rest this week with five games remaining on their schedule, we look at what they can do to lock up the division.
Let’s dive in:
1. Beat the Packers at home.
We’ll start with the biggest priority after the bye. It would be an early Christmas gift for the Vikings (and the purple faithful) to take down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Minneapolis. In the first clash with the Packers back in Week 2, Minnesota fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter and couldn’t make its way back, losing 21-16.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer knows Rodgers well and has been able to slow the quarterback down a bit the past few seasons. In his last seven starts against Vikings, Rodgers has only won two games and has thrown for multiple touchdowns just twice. But the Packers’ offense now features something they haven’t had since the days of Ahman Green: a consistent running game.
The biggest key to the rematch will be stopping emerging running back Aaron Jones, the NFL’s co-leader in touchdowns (14). Jones gashed the Vikings for 150 total yards and a score back in Week 2. In the Packers’ two losses, Jones is averaging 43.5 yards from scrimmage. The third-year back has logged 106.8 total yards per game in the Packers’ eight wins. He’s the key.
2. Get Adam Thielen healthy again
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been the NFL’s best signal caller since the beginning of October (details can be found here), and he’s done it largely without one of his top-two options in the passing. Thielen, the Vikings’ leading receiver over the first six weeks of the season, hasn’t played a full game since Oct. 13.
Getting him back on the field will be crucial for the Vikings’ postseason run. He’s another weapon that defenses need to focus on, drawing attention away from fellow stars Stefon Diggs and Dalvin Cook. The latter two are thriving in Kevin Stefanski’s offense — Cook ranks second in the NFL with 1,017 rushing yards and Diggs leads all receivers with 16 catches of 20+ yards — but both would benefit even more from a healthy Thielen.
3. Address the Xavier Rhodes situation
Just two seasons ago, Rhodes was arguably the best cornerback in the league. That seems like decades ago after watching his play in 2019. Rhodes has looked slow and, and to be blunt, occasionally silly while still being tasked covering the opponent’s top receiver. On the season, Rhodes has allowed an 85.5% catch rate with 47 receptions on 55 targets. Zimmer can’t continue to rely on No. 29 in big situations if the Vikings are going to win the division.
4. Keep Kirk upright
Cousins has been sacked 22 times on the season, which is tied for 16th in the league. But 20 of those 22 sacks have occurred over last eight weeks, which is the fourth-most in that span. This team is going nowhere without a healthy Cousins, so protecting the quarterback is a big priority moving forward.
5. Pressure the quarterback more often
What’s the best way to throw an opposing QB off his game? Pressure. Yes, the Vikings have 31 sacks, an average of 2.8 per game, the latter of which ranks 10th in the NFL. But according to pro-football-reference.com, Minnesota is getting a hurry (defined as making a quarterback throw earlier than intended or chasing him out of the pocket) on only 8.0% of its rushes, which is the sixth-worst rate in the NFL. The Vikings pressure percentage (which accounts for hurries, knockdowns and sacks per QB dropbacks) is 21.3%, or tied for 10th-worst. Opposing QBs have a QB rating of 90.9 against Minnesota, which is right in the middle of the league, ranking 15th. Of the 14 teams worse than the Vikings, only three have a winning record – Houston, Indianapolis and Jacksonville – all who are 6-4.