The Minnesota Vikings and their 4-5 record host the Packers this Sunday, and if we’re going by records alone, the Packers should be heavy favorites.
But going by records alone is stupid, so we’re not going to do that. The Vikings are better than 4-5 and have the team makeup to give the Packers a good test on Sunday. Will they? That, of course, is the million-dollar question, and to find an answer we turned to Eric Thompson of
Acme Packing Company: The Packers have had their own issues with COVID this season (Aaron Rodgers’ “immunization” controversy among them), but so have the Vikings, especially as the season has worn on. Where do the Vikings stand with their pandemic problems right now?
Eric Thompson: As of this very moment—and as we all know, that could change drastically before kickoff—the Vikings are in the best shape they have been in for the past several weeks in regards to COVID. Harrison Smith and Garrett Bradbury both missed the past two games on the COVID list, but they’re off of it now. Practice Squad guard Dakota Dozier was actually hospitalized for COVID earlier this week despite being vaccinated. Dozier, one other practice squad player, and one defensive backup are still on the list, but the Vikings are in much better shape than we may have expected as recently as Wednesday. At least four vaccinated players received a positive test this week, but they all appeared to be false positives and they have been able to return to team activities as Sunday’s game approaches.
APC: Kirk Cousins is having pretty close to a career year, but he’s still a polarizing player to a certain extent. What’s your take on Cousins this season?
ET: You mean the undisputed Pro Football Focus passing grade champion Kirk Cousins? (No really, he is! Look it up!) Cousins is certainly capable of doing just about anything that you could ask of an NFL quarterback, which is why he is once again putting up some very impressive statistics. But he can still be incredibly polarizing thanks to some questionable decision-making. Cousins has a 1-2 wide receiver combo in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen that most quarterbacks would kill for. Yet in the Week 8 loss to the Cowboys, fullback CJ Ham had more catches than Jefferson. In the Week 9 loss to the Ravens, tight end Tyler Conklin had as many catches as Thielen and Jefferson combined. The biggest knock on Cousins this year is that he has a tendency to be so risk-averse that it limits what the offense can do. He’s much more likely to take what the defense gives him instead of just trusting his great receivers to make great plays. Sure, he has only two interceptions and one lost fumble this season, but he has definitely eschewed some opportunities for big plays to get there. Hopefully, last week’s win over the Chargers was a preview of what we’ll see from Cousins and the Vikings’ offense in the second half of the season. They took more deep shots to their playmakers, Klint Kubiak was more aggressive with his play-calling, and voila — they came away with a big road victory. If they hope to prevent the Packers from running away with the division just after the midpoint of the season, they’re going to need more of the same on Sunday.
APC: If there’s one thing that can undo a quarterback, it’s the offensive line, which has been an issue for the Vikings for some time. Is that the case again this season? If so, where are the biggest trouble spots?
ET: The surest way to short-circuit the Vikings offense remains getting consistent pressure on Cousins, especially up the middle. Unfortunately, while the offensive line is better on the whole compared to last year, there are still plenty of opportunities to do that. Bradbury’s return to the active roster wasn’t exactly met with open arms by many Vikings fans. Mason Cole performed pretty well over the past couple of weeks, and Mike Zimmer hasn’t completely committed to simply reinstating Bradbury as the starter just yet. Bradbury is a very good run blocker in the zone scheme the Vikings run, but he remains a huge liability in pass blocking. Big defensive tackles — you know, guys like Kenny Clark — can still bulldoze right through Bradbury to blow up plays. The right guard position hasn’t been much better either. Oli Udoh started the season on a high note, but for the past several weeks you can’t spell “holding” without O-L-I. The Packers are pretty shorthanded at edge rusher, and Brian O’Neill and rookie Christian Darrisaw have both performed well at tackle. But if Green Bay’s excellent secondary can prevent Jefferson and Thielen from getting open early, it could be a long day for the interior offensive line and Cousins.
APC: Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson are two great but aging players, and both are back at practice for the Vikings this week. What can we expect from the Vikings’ big names? How will they contribute to the defense as a whole?
ET: Getting both players back for such a big game is a huge boost for the Vikings’ defense. Patterson looked like he was falling off a cliff his last two years in Arizona, but he was rejuvenated in Mike Zimmer’s defense until a hamstring injury sidelined him for three games. The return of P2 will make the prospect of slowing down Davante Adams much more palatable. The thought of Bashaud Breeland getting roasted by Adams for 60 minutes makes me cringe. The return of Smith is obviously welcome, as he remains an integral part of the Vikings’ defense. But rookie safety Camryn Bynum performed very well in Smith’s absence over the past two weeks, so it will be interesting to see if the Vikings utilize some three-safety looks with Smith, Bynum, and Xavier Woods on Sunday. Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce will still be sorely missed on the line, but the defense is about as close to full strength as they’re going to get at this point in the season.
APC: What’s the Vikings’ best shot at winning this weekend? How do you see the game unfolding?
ET: I’m probably an idiot for thinking this, but I actually think the Vikings have a pretty decent shot on Sunday. This team is obviously more talented than their 4-5 record would indicate, and I think they’re finally starting to figure out how to get out of their own way a bit. If the Vikings can:
Remain aggressive with their play-calling
Consistently get the ball in the hands of Jefferson, Thielen, and Dalvin Cook
Prevent Clark and the Packers secondary from making game-changing plays
Keep Adams in check
Pressure Rodgers consistently, especially on third down
Avoid another meltdown after the two-minute warning of either half (a specialty of the 2021 Vikings)
Then they should be able to get back to .500 and keep the NFC North race mildly interesting before December. Of course that’s much easier said than done against the top-seeded Packers, but what the hell — I’ll get my hopes up yet again. When has that ever backfired with the Vikings? I’ll say Vikings 24, Packers 20. (Feel free to tag @OldTakesExposed when posting this article on Twitter.)