Mahomes or not, the true tests for the Vikings begin in Kansas City

EAGAN — In order to fully grasp what the Minnesota Vikings’ matchup at Arrowhead Stadium with the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday means you have to think back to the last time the Vikings and Chiefs faced each other.

On October 18, 2015, the 2-2 Vikings took on a struggling Chiefs team with hopes of showing signs of carrying over a strong finish to the 2014 season. At that time, Mike Zimmer was still trying to prove himself as a viable NFL coach and his timidly-hyped team was coming off a close loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

The rub heading into the game was something like this: A win over the Chiefs would give Vikings fans all sorts of confidence that their new coach could take them on a winning streak with Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Oakland as their next four opponents. A loss would point to more mediocrity being on the way.

The Vikings beat Kansas City in the most Mike Zimmer-y way possible: In an ugly 16-10 bout in which neither team cleared 330 yards and they went a combined 9-for-29 on third down. Stefon Diggs had a breakout game, catching seven passes for 129 yards just three weeks after being inactive. Eric Kendricks picked up a sack and nine tackles. Danielle Hunter added a half sack. Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes kept KC’s top two receivers each under 60 yards.

When you look at those stats, the 2015 season doesn’t feel like that long ago — until you mention that Blair Walsh had several key field goals and the game took place at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Vikings went on to win the next four games, starting the buzz about them as the next great team.

Since then it has been been a roller coaster — largely due to Teddy Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury — but the one common theme is that the Vikings have always had the expectation of being a Super Bowl contender.

Whether it was after a 5-0 start to open 2016 or an NFC Championship appearance in 2017 or when the signing of Kirk Cousins upped the ante last year, they have always been a should-be-right-there-at-the-end team. Whenever the Vikings’ owners would discuss the state of their team or whenever the national media would lay down their predictions, inevitably the Vikings would be one of the teams mentioned for the NFC North title or more.

Those expectations are the culmination of Zimmer’s vision for a top-notch defense coming to life and sustaining success over several years combined with the “final piece” at quarterback. Anything short of the playoffs has been and will continue to be a failure for a Vikings team that has developed players brilliantly and spent wildly to keep them.

Coincidentally, you can trace those expectations back to that 2015 win over KC.

Now as the Vikings head into Arrowhead on Sunday there is another potential turning point at hand. If they can advance to 7-2 by beating the AFC West leader loaded with an uber-talented group of playmakers under one of the NFL’s most innovative offensive minds, it would go down as a huge step toward showing they can be more than the team that is a product of its schedule.

Even if superstar Patrick Mahomes doesn’t play, backup Matt Moore is Moore than capable of putting together a great start, especially with home field advantage and Reid generally knowing how to solve the best defenses.

“Andy’s always been a great coach,” Zimmer said. “I’m on a committee with him. He’s very knowledgeable with everything, the way that he expresses his beliefs and thoughts. He’s always been a hard guy to defend. He’s actually changed a little bit. He used to be true West Coast, now it’s a lot more RPOs and four guys out on a side, things like that. I think he’s adjusted with the times.”

Sunday’s game will be more than just a “measuring stick.” It’s the start of a schedule that Football Outsiders ranks as the eighth hardest in the NFL over the final eight weeks. It’s coming off a schedule that Football Outsiders ranked 24th in the first eight weeks.

A win would act as some validation for Kirk Cousins and for the answers the Vikings believe they have found pertaining to Kirk Cousins.

It’s all been said over and over: He can’t beat good teams. He can’t win a big game. He can’t sustain success. Those things won’t be quieted in one week — they play Dallas and Seattle on the road in two of the next three weeks — and start the process of turning down to noise to eventually a mute if he can win in the postseason.

A win would point us in the direction of whether Cousins’ 137.1 rating in October was more of the version of Cousins that the Vikings thought would be there consistently when they signed him to an $84 million deal. It will begin to tell us whether all Cousins needed was a better offensive line (ranked 11th by PFF, currently), an additional few playmakers and a healthy Dalvin Cook. And if Kevin Stefanski has unlocked the secrets to using Cousins’ strengths and mitigating his weaknesses.

Cousins isn’t the only one who needs a win at Arrowhead to boost their case. The Vikings defense came into the year expecting to be one of the best in the NFL and they largely have been effective but opponents have found ways to attack corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. We saw Detroit score 30 points and Washington control the first half last Thursday night with its short passing game. Backup Chase Daniel left Soldier Field with a 101.4 rating against the Vikings defense in Week 4.

Because the Vikings’ six wins came against teams with a total record of 14-31-1, it makes sense to question them — to ask if the version we saw at Lambeau or Soldier Field were closer to the truth. It’s fair to ask if the offense is really the third best in the NFL (in yards per play) or if the defense can play at the same level as New England and San Francisco have this year.

Sunday against the Kansas City will be the start of finding out whether they have serious odds at fulfilling their expectations — the ones that started their incline in that 2015 win over the Chiefs and have been at playoff-run-or-bust level since then.