Preview: Vikings can’t overlook dangerous Chargers

CARSON, Calif. — The Minnesota Vikings realize they can’t stop to take a deep breath in the final three weeks of the regular season — not even at sea level on the sunny West Coast.

With the Green Bay Packers ahead of them in the NFC North and the Los Angeles Rams right on their tails in the wild-card race, the Vikings (9-4) might need to be perfect in their final three games just to make the playoffs.

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The next stop on Minnesota’s perilous path to the postseason is a suburban soccer stadium hosting its next-to-last NFL game. The Los Angeles Chargers (5-8) have already been eliminated from playoff contention, but they’ve got more than enough talent and motivation to worry the Vikings in their final road game of the regular season.

“It’s the NFL, so you can’t take no team lightly,” Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said.

The Vikings have won seven of nine with an increasingly impressive offense and a playmaking defense, but they realize the Chargers are a danger not indicated by their record.

Los Angeles’ eight losses have all been by seven points or fewer, leaving the Chargers out of the playoff race despite a plus-38 point differential and elite talent on both sides of the ball. The Bolts’ late-game execution has doomed them repeatedly, while the Vikings pulled out a pair of narrow victories last month to kick-start their playoff push.

A loss by the Vikings would greatly benefit the Rams, who will be the Chargers’ stadium roommates next season. That’s not a motivation for the Bolts, who are still fighting for coach Anthony Lynn’s stated goal to rally back to .500.

“We want to win for us,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Obviously, it’s been tough with every loss by one score. We’re playing for us, but certainly, there’s a lot on the line for them. The Rams are pulling for us as well. It’ll be a heck of a game.”

TRIPPING UP

Road games on the West Coast have long been tricky for teams in the Central or Eastern time zones, and the Vikings have been no exception.

After losing 37-30 at Seattle two games ago, they’re 1-6 on the road in the Mountain and Pacific time zones in six seasons under coach Mike Zimmer. Their last such win was at Oakland in 2015. Five of those losses were in night games, so the NFL did the Vikings a favor by recently moving this contest out of prime time and into the late afternoon slot.

Another category that could hinder the Vikings? The natural grass at Dignity Health Sports Park. They’ve won only one of seven games on grass over the last two seasons, at Philadelphia in 2018.

“Good football teams, no matter what comes at them, find a way to still get the job done,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said.

FINALLY HOME

The Chargers haven’t played a home game since Nov. 3, and they have just two left in their temporary stadium south of downtown Los Angeles. While the Vikings are likely to have a serious fan turnout, the Bolts are used to that — and they’re still grateful to be home for the next two weeks believing they can reset their mentality with a regular schedule.

DIGGS DEEP

Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs is fifth in the NFL with an average of 17.8 yards per reception. When he’s targeted on an attempt of 20 or more yards in the air, the passer rating of 139.2 is second best in the league behind only Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. Diggs has seven catches of 40 or more yards, tied for second in the NFL with Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and trailing only Mike Williams of the Chargers with eight. His success with Cousins going deep has been a big reason the Vikings have won seven of their last nine games and stayed on track for the playoffs despite the loss of two-time Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen to a hamstring injury. Thielen has been limited to 16 snaps over the previous seven games.

“Be able to run routes at a high level, catch the ball and have success down the field is just part of the game that you work at, but I never wanted to be good at one thing. I just wanted to be a good receiver,” Diggs said.

THIELEN READY?

Thielen has practiced on a limited basis this week and could finally be at full strength again on Sunday. After the initial injury on Oct. 20 at Detroit, he had a false start on Nov. 3 at Kansas City that forced him out again in the first quarter, making the Vikings extra cautious about his return. The Vikings have averaged 27 points over their last seven games.

“I’m excited. The only thing you’re worried about is, ‘Hey, we’ve got a good rhythm going, you know?’” Cousins said, smiling. “It does feel different when you have him back. It has a different dynamic, so you just joke with him, ‘Hey, don’t rock the boat too much.’”

UNDER PRESSURE

Keep an eye on the matchup between Vikings sack machine Danielle Hunter and the Chargers’ offensive tackles. While left tackle Russell Okung is usually rock-solid, right tackle Sam Tevi is learning on the job and has given up too many chances to get at the relatively static Rivers. Hunter is tied for fourth in the league with 12 1/2 sacks after becoming the youngest player to reach 50 career sacks last week.

 

MINNESOTA (9-4) at LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (5-8)

Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS

OPENING LINE –

RECORD VS. SPREAD – Vikings 7-6-0, Chargers 4-8-1

SERIES RECORD – Tied 6-6-1

LAST MEETING – Vikings beat Chargers 31-14, Sept. 27, 2015

LAST WEEK – Vikings beat Lions 20-7; Chargers beat Jaguars 45-10

AP PRO32 RANKING – Vikings No. 8, Chargers No. 22

VIKINGS OFFENSE – OVERALL (11), RUSH (4), PASS (14)

VIKINGS DEFENSE – OVERALL (14), RUSH (11), PASS (16)

CHARGERS OFFENSE – OVERALL (10), RUSH (22), PASS (5)

CHARGERS DEFENSE – OVERALL (4), RUSH (17), PASS (4)

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES – Vikings continue push to stay in second NFC wild-card playoff spot against eliminated Bolts. … Vikings are 1-6 in road games in Mountain and Pacific time zones in six seasons under coach Mike Zimmer. … Vikings have beaten Chargers on road only once in history, in San Diego in 1981. … Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins has five games with 80% completion rate or greater, most in single season in NFL history. … Vikings RB Dalvin Cook has rushing TD in four straight games, tied for league lead with 13 rushing TDs. … WR Stefon Diggs is 25 receiving yards from setting career high. He had 1,021 yards last year. … Vikings DE Danielle Hunter has 12½ sacks, tied for fourth in NFL. He has 52½ career sacks after becoming youngest player in history to reach 50 career sacks (25 years, 40 days) last week. … Minnesota has allowed only five rushing TDs in 2019, tied with Steelers for fewest in league.. … Chargers playing penultimate game at compact soccer stadium in Carson before move to Inglewood palace next season. Just 2-3 at home this season. … Bolts’ eight losses all by seven points or fewer, they’re out of playoff race despite plus-38 point differential and talent-loaded roster rounding back into form after injuries. … Philip Rivers coming off highest-rated passing game of career, posting a 154.4 on 314 yards passing, three TDs in blowout of Jacksonville. … Rivers is 1-2 as starter against Minnesota, throwing three TD passes, four interceptions. Passer rating of 71.9 is second worst in career against any opponent. … Chargers ranked fourth in total defense, allowing 304.8 yards per game. Passing defense also ranked fourth in NFL. … RB Austin Ekeler needs seven catches to join WR Keenan Allen as second set of teammates in Chargers history with 80 catches apiece. Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson did it in 1980. … Ekeler has matched Lionel James’ franchise record for running backs with three career 100-yard receiving games. … Allen is 53 yards from third straight 1,000-yard receiving season. … DE Joey Bosa has sacked 24 QBs in career, but never Cousins. Fellow Bolts pass rusher Melvin Ingram has sacked Cousins once. … Chargers S Derwin James gets first career matchup against Vikes RB Cook, his Florida State teammate and close friend. … Fantasy tip: Chargers haven’t given up despite playoff elimination, and offense finally clicked last week. Ekeler, Allen, Mike Williams all should be strong plays.