Tough road games loom as Vikings navigate crowded playoff picture
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings have a lot of work left just to make the playoffs before the championship chase even comes back into the conversation.
The Vikings face daunting back-to-back road games against New England and Seattle, with the every-four-years matchup against five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and the Patriots up this Sunday afternoon and a Monday night meeting with the surging Seahawks in their deafening stadium on deck for Dec. 10.
The load, though, is a lot lighter after beating the rival Green Bay Packers 24-17 on Sunday night.
“Winning’s not easy. It takes so much effort. It takes a lot of practice and time and energy,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “When you win, it feels good.”
The complete performance, though not without blemishes, was especially rewarding given the way the Vikings played at Chicago on Nov. 18 in the 25-20 defeat that gave the Bears a firm hold on the NFC North .
“That loss in Chicago hurt, and I know a lot of the guys felt that way,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “I know that they were concerned about the future schedule going on, but we had to focus on one game.”
The Vikings (6-4-1), who trail in the division race by 1½ games and finish the season with a rematch against the Bears at home on Dec. 30, moved into the first NFC wild-card spot. The problem is there are four teams tied at 6-5, with one of those slots to go to the NFC East winner. With the difficulty of these next two games, the Vikings could very well fall below the cut and have to win their way back in over the last three weeks.
If they can collectively play as well against the Patriots and Seahawks as they did against the depleted Packers, though, they’ll give themselves a good chance to stay on a winning streak. The defense will be tested anew by Brady, but Zimmer said the hamstring injury suffered by cornerback Xavier Rhodes was “very, very mild,” an encouraging development for the pass coverage.
The offense, of course, was under the most pressure after that dud against the Bears and their fierce defense. Dalvin Cook made more of an impact, scoring his first touchdown of the season on the kind of basic screen pass that has been largely missing from the game plan. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo sent more running plays to the perimeter, where there was more space to operate. The blockers up front had one of their best games of the year in protecting Kirk Cousins, who came through with three touchdown passeswithout a turnover.
“When you hold the football in your hands, you hold the livelihoods of a lot of people in that building and their families,” Cousins said. “It has to matter to us. One coach told me many times, ‘Ball security is job security, yours and mine.'”
Cousins showed more willingness to run with the ball, too, on the handful of occasions the pocket collapsed and nobody was open. Zimmer encouraged him to do so in a wide-ranging conversation last week, after Cousins threw two interceptions against the Bears in a performance that was his worst with the Vikings.
“I just want to play well for these guys, not just for coach Zimmer, but for our staff. They work so hard. They deserve a lot of respect and recognition, and then certainly our locker room. I just feel so good about our team, and I said that to them in pregame. I like us. I like our guys,” Cousins said after the game Sunday night. “Unfortunately, just being a great group of guys doesn’t mean you get wins handed to you, but we had to go out and earn tonight.”