The Vikings could be returning from their bye week with a 5-1 record. Dalvin Cook’s fumble in overtime in Week 1 cost Minnesota a potential win in Cincinnati, and Greg Joseph’s missed field goal late in Week 2 turned a win into a loss in Arizona. The Vikings also could be 1-5. Back-to-back victories against Detroit and Carolina, the latter in overtime, were games the Vikings tried to give away before Kirk Cousins and the offense saved the day.
So are the Vikings a quality team who suffered from misfortune in the first six weeks, or an underachieving bunch who are lucky to be .500? We are about to find out and the answer could determine the future for coach Mike Zimmer, Cousins and possibly general manager Rick Spielman.
The Vikings will play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, sitting three games behind the first-place Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and holding the seventh and final playoff seed in the conference because they have a tie-breaker over the 3-3 Falcons.
The next four games figure to give us a clear idea of whether the Vikings are as good as many, including ownership, felt they were entering the season. At the very least, the expectation was a playoff berth and, truthfully, it was far more than that. The Cowboys (5-1) are atop the terrible NFC East but might be playing without starting quarterback and MVP candidate Dak Prescott, who is dealing with a calf injury. A decision on Prescott reportedly will be made Sunday, and, if he doesn’t start, he will be replaced by Cooper Rush, who has never started a game in four seasons and hasn’t thrown a pass since 2017.
The Cowboys, with Prescott at QB, are the NFL’s best offense, scoring a league-leading 34.2 points per game. But if Prescott doesn’t start, and there is a good chance he won’t, this becomes a must-win game for the Vikings and a defense that needs to do a far better job against the run than it did before the bye. The Cowboys are averaging 164.3 yards on the ground, second-best in the NFL, and the Vikings are 26th in stopping the run (128 yards per game.)
Rush playing quarterback would make Dallas’ offense one-dimensional and be a significant break for a team that will be without its best cornerback, Patrick Peterson (hamstring), and will be relying on Cameron Dantzler and Bashaud Breeland.
Minnesota will then travel to play Baltimore and the Chargers in the following two games, setting up meetings with Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, respectively, before returning home to play host to the Packers and Aaron Rodgers.
The Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers and Packers have a combined record of 21-6 and three of the teams (Cowboys, Ravens and Packers) are either in first place in their division or tied for the lead. Nervous Vikings fans spent the week expressing concerns about the Dallas game, and pessimistic fans are thinking that 2-2 would be a successful record in the next four.
But if the Vikings want to be taken seriously — and trying to sneak into the playoffs as the seventh seed doesn’t get you taken seriously — continuing to play .500 football isn’t going to cut it. Cousins is having far too good of a season, and the fact he now has three superstar to excellent wide receivers and Dalvin Cook in his backfield, puts the Vikings in position to start controling games.
The script needs to be flipped so that the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers and Packers look at the Vikings and say, “uh-oh,” we might be in trouble. That’s why the Vikings need to go 3-1 in these next four and why Zimmer needs to beat Packers coach Matt LaFleur at U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time (0-2).
Come out of this stretch with a 6-4 record, with games at struggling San Francisco (2-4) and Detroit (0-7) at up next, and the Vikings will look like a team that still has an opportunity of meeting internal expectations. Split the next four, or worse, and it will be far more likely that Zimmer will be on his way out after the season, Spielman’s long-term employment will be a subject of discussion and Cousins could find himself elsewhere in 2022.
The good news is the Vikings are in control of making sure the above topics never get broached. The only way to do this will be to spend the next 16 quarters proving this team is as good as many expected.