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Zulgad: No room for error: Vikings have no excuse for not winning easily against Jaguars

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Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (93) celebrates after Carolina Panthers kicker Joey Slye (4) (not pictured) missed a field goal attempt in the fourth quarter during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Vikings defeated the Panthers 28-27. (AP Photo/David Berding)

The Vikings have a chance to get to .500 for the first time this season on Sunday when they play host to the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. It would be an impressive rebound for a team that opened the season by winning only one of its first six games and was blown out by the previously winless Atlanta Falcons in Week 6 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

That embarrassing defeat left many wondering whether changes at general manager, coach and/or quarterback were needed. The Vikings had suffered one-sided losses to Green Bay (Week 1), Indianapolis (Week 2) and the Falcons. There also had been one-point defeats against Tennessee (Week 3) and Seattle (Week 5).

But Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins began to quiet the panic as the Vikings emerged from the bye week by winning three in a row and four of five. That includes a narrow victory last Sunday over Carolina, in which Cousins drove his team down the field late in the fourth quarter for the winning score and then Panthers kicker Joey Slye missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt as time expired. That left the Vikings with a 5-6 record and one-game behind Arizona, which holds the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC. The Cardinals, who have lost three of four, will play host to the Los Angeles Rams (7-4) on Sunday.

The Vikings are 10-point favorites to beat Jacksonville, which has lost 10 consecutive games since beating the Colts in Week 1 and just fired general manager Dave Caldwell. Zimmer’s message to his players should be simple: The time for missteps is over. If the Vikings are really an improved team — one that has a chance to make a second consecutive postseason appearance, and maybe even win a game — they shouldn’t simply win on Sunday, they should cover the spread and do it easily.

They also need to do it while making sure running back Dalvin Cook’s enormous workload is significantly decreased in order to get his injured ankle a rest. (It will be interesting to see how much Cook is used with Alexander Mattison having been downgraded to out for Sunday because of illness.) Cousins has been very good the past two games and putting the weight of this game on his shoulders should not be an issue. The Jaguars can not stop the run and they can’t stop the pass, so the Vikings should have an easy time moving the ball.

Zimmer should have no problem motivating his players. All he has to do is remind his team about its performance two weeks ago against Dallas. In the second of a three-game homestand — one that the Vikings should have swept — the Cowboys walked away with a 31-28 victory. Four days later, Dallas fell to 3-8 with an ugly 41-16 loss to visiting Washington.

The Vikings are far from a polished team. Their offense can be very good, especially when Cousins is on his game, but the defense continues to have issues on the line and with its young cornerbacks. Special teams play has become a weekly adventure and that has nothing to do with kicker Dan Bailey. But the NFC also is wide open — read: not very good — and that means there is an opportunity to surprise.

The Vikings will have four games remaining after Sunday: at Tampa Bay, vs. Chicago, at New Orleans and at Detroit.

The Buccaneers might have Tom Brady but they also have had a very up-and-down season and have lost three of their past four to sit at 7-5. The Saints are 2.5 games ahead of the Buccaneers in the NFC South and have won eight in a row heading into their game Sunday in Atlanta. It’s unclear if quarterback Drew Brees (broken ribs) will be able to return by the Christmas Day meeting with the Vikings, or if Taysom Hill still will be starting.

Are the Vikings going to win all five of their remaining games? That’s probably a long shot. But if they win four of the five, that will leave them at 9-7 and with the possibility of grabbing the final playoff seed in a weak conference. The important thing is that the Vikings’ awful start leaves no room for error against the teams they should beat.

That list includes the Bears and Lions. The former has given up and likely will fire its coach after the season and the latter just fired its coach. But the Vikings need to begin December by giving Jaguars coach Doug Marrone another push out the door. That means Cousins should not be in position for late-game heroics, and the Vikings defense should make life miserable for Jacksonville quarterback Mike Glennon for four quarters. A double-digit victory should come easily.

Anything less will be a disappointment.