There was a time when it appeared the Vikings might spend this season vying for a top pick in the NFL draft. Minnesota lost its first three games, giving up 43, 28 and 31 points, and was 1-5 entering its bye week. The defense was a mess and Kirk Cousins’ 10 interceptions were four more than he had thrown all of last season.
Mike Zimmer’s team showed life in its first game after the bye, upsetting the Packers in Lambeau Field, and has won four of five since. That has pulled the Vikings to 6-6 and puts them in the seventh and final playoff position in the NFC. The rebound has been impressive, but knowing what to make of it hasn’t been easy.
The Vikings just completed a three-game homestand against bottom-feeders, suffering a brutal loss to Dallas before getting past Carolina (28-27) and Jacksonville (27-24) in overtime. The Cowboys, Panthers and Jaguars are a combined 8-28. The Vikings’ win over the Packers remains their only victory against a winning team.
So who are the 2020 Vikings? We’re about to find out.
The Vikings will face the Buccaneers (7-5) on Sunday in Tampa. Tampa Bay is one spot ahead of Minnesota in the NFC playoff standings and is perfect test for Zimmer’s team. The Bucs are a solid but flawed club in a very flawed conference.
They started 6-2 in Tom Brady’s first season at quarterback, but had lost three of four entering their bye last Sunday. The losses came against first-place teams in New Orleans, the Rams and Kansas City, but if the Vikings want to prove that their in-season turnaround should result in a playoff berth they almost certainly will have to beat Tampa Bay or New Orleans, and maybe both, on the road in their final four games of the season.
The Vikings will be missing one of their top defensive players with middle linebacker Eric Kendricks out for a second consecutive game because of a calf injury, but unlike so many of Zimmer’s teams this is one isn’t built around defense. The Vikings’ post-bye rebound started with an offense that gave the ball to running back Dalvin Cook, then gave it to him again and, when in doubt, threw it to him.
Cousins threw only 34 total passes in victories over Green Bay and Detroit, but has averaged 35 passes per game in the past five. In the six games before the bye, Cousins had thrown 11 touchdowns and 10 picks with a 64.6 completion percentage and 88.2 passer rating. In the six games since, Cousins has 15 touchdowns and two interceptions with a 70.7 completion percentage and 118.6 passer rating.
Cousins has played like a guy worthy of his $96 million contract, in part because Adam Thielen has continued to be a reliable target and rookie Justin Jefferson, the 22nd pick in the draft, has turned into one of the NFL’s top wide receivers. Cook’s workload — which included an incredible 38 touches against the Jaguars — is clearly wearing him down, but his presence makes play-action a threat and presents Cousins more opportunities in the passing game.
The Buccaneers have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, giving up only 74.2 yards per game, and have given up fewer than 100 yards rushing to an opposing team in 10 of 12 games. Cook figures to have to work for every yard he gets, meaning Cousins is likely to have to do the heavy lifting if the Vikings are getting to pull the upset. The way Cousins has played of late he certainly should be capable of that and Jefferson could stand to have a huge day against the NFL’s 22nd-ranked pass defense.
The Vikings are 26th in the league in scoring defense, giving up an un-Zimmer-like 27.4 points per game, but Zimmer is known for designing schemes that can frustrate established quarterbacks like Brady. The question is does Zimmer have the personnel to best the 43-year-old Brady? Brady is 5-0 in his career against the Vikings, but those victories came when he was playing within the comforts of the New England offense. Brady hasn’t looked nearly as comfortable this season trying to run Bruce Arians’ scheme and his 64.8 completion percentage is 25th in the league.
The Vikings’ goal should be to watch Brady bolt off the field after the game, refusing to shake hands with Cousins or anyone else. That will mean the Vikings have won the game and taken a significant step toward securing a playoff spot. It also will mean the 2020 Vikings are truly a resilient bunch and not just a team that has taken advantage of beating up on opponents that are even worse than them.