Things have not gone as planned for the Minnesota Vikings in 2021. Though they upset the Green Bay Packers in Week 11, that hasn’t buoyed them to further success, and with two games to go they’re looking at the very real possibility of a second consecutive losing season.
But they’re also not technically out of the playoffs, either, and with enviable skill position players and a once-great defensive mastermind at the helm, it’s possible the Vikings could make a push for the postseason. And if anything should fuel that possibility, it’s the chance to complete the season sweep of their NFC North rivals.
What are the chances that happens? Can MIke Zimmer save his job? What does 2022 hold for Minnesota? For answers, we turned to The Daily Norseman’s Eric Thompson.
Acme Packing Company: What’s been the biggest change for the Vikings since the Packers’ last encountered them?
Eric Thompson: Since their Week 11 win where it looked like the Vikings might have finally figured things out, they changed...right back into the maddening, not-quite-good-enough, grasp-defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory team that Vikings fans are all too familiar with over the past several years. The win over the Packers was only false hope that Sysiphus was finally going to push the rock over the hill, only to have it roll back down in the form of a 2-3 record since their first meeting. Oh, and the services of five players that started in Week 12 will not be available this time around:
Defensive end Everson Griffen (non-football related)
Wide receiver Adam Thielen (season-ending ankle surgery)
Center/guard Mason Cole (IR)
Cornerback Bashaud Breeland (kicked off the team after getting in an argument)
Guard Oli Udoh (COVID)
It’s not like the last two on the list were playing particularly well, but the thought of Davante Adams and Kenny Clark feasting on their backups is enough to make any Vikings fan’s stomach churn.
APC: The Vikings have had just one 10-win season since 2018. What are the chances this is it for Mike Zimmer?
ET: I’m fairly certain that Zimmer’s fate has already been sealed, but if the Vikings lose on Sunday, that would almost certainly eliminate the Vikings from the playoffs. I don’t see Zimmer surviving if he misses the postseason for the third time in four years. I’m not even sure he survives if the Vikings sneak in and go one-and-done in the playoffs. Since the lightning-in-a-bottle run to the conference championship with Case Keenum in 2017, the Vikings have been stuck smack dab in the mediocre middle for the past four seasons. The 2019 postseason win in New Orleans was nice, but the rest has been extremely disappointing since Kirk Cousins’ arrival. The Vikings remain either one of the best bad teams or one of the worst good teams in the NFL depending on your perspective. Hovering around .500 and missing the postseason is no longer an every-other-year anomaly under Zimmer; it has become the status quo. And I really doubt that the Wilf family or the fans will be willing to put up with that status quo next year.
APC: A single season is hardly enough to evaluate a draft class, but what’s your take on the Vikings’ 2021 draftees?
ET: First-round pick Christian Darrisaw has been really good when healthy; he certainly looks like he could be the left tackle of the future.
Rookie return man Kene Nwangwu has two kickoff return touchdowns and has shown a couple flashes in the run game.
After that? It’s basically one giant fart noise.
Quarterback Kellen Mond is getting the full Jordan Love treatment and hasn’t seen the field yet. The Vikings signed Kyle Sloter, who burned every bridge possible on the way out from his first stint in Minnesota, as insurance this week instead of putting Mond in a position where he might actually be active. The other three third round picks—LB Chazz Surratt, G Wyatt Davis, and DE Patrick Jones—have seen a grand total of 87 non-special teams snaps, and all of those snaps were by Jones, who’s now on the COVID Reserve list. Rookie safety Cam Bynum actually looked really good when filling in for Harrison Smith, but has been inexplicably banished back to the bench since Smith’s return from COVID. Fifth-round wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette has a touchdown to his credit, but has only three targets this season. Every other pick has been buried on either the IR or Practice Squad all year.
The Vikings’ plan in 2021 was to try to build around their stars with impact rookies and savvy free agent signings. Outside of a couple bright spots, neither part of that strategy has worked particularly well, which is why they’re on the brink of being eliminated from the playoffs.
APC: Looking ahead to the 2022 off-season, the Vikings have a horde of impending free agents, but most of them are on the wrong side of 30. Is there anyone you’re concerned about losing?
ET: If the Vikings blow everything up, fire Zimmer, possibly fire GM Rick Spielman, and try to rebuild their roster under the new regime? No, not really. I do not believe that any of the impending free agents are indispensable to a team that would be trying to change its identity. That said, there are a handful of players that I wouldn’t mind keeping around after their deals expire:
Patrick Peterson: There will likely be another major round of turnover at the cornerback position for the Vikings. Keeping P2 around might not be a bad idea, both for his solid play and excellent leadership.
Tyler Conklin: After toiling behind Kyle Rudoph and Irv Smith Jr., Conklin has acquitted himself pretty well after being thrust into the starting role this season. But his asking price might be too high with so many bigger needs for the team to fill. Smith is still TE1 going forward regardless of whether Conklin is retained.
Anthony Barr: With the caveat that the team makes sure his body can hold up going forward. If Barr’s long-term health checks out and he isn’t asking over what should be a relatively modest market price, he is still a pretty important part of this defense.
Mason Cole: He would likely come fairly cheap and has proven to be effective at multiple offensive line positions this year.
Xavier Woods: The Vikings have certainly got their money’s worth out of Woods this year, but they’ll have to decide between Woods and Bynum to start alongside Harrison Smith next year.
Greg Joseph: I mean, the Vikings could certainly do worse at kicker. There’s a good chance that the kicker competition will be decided in Training Camp again, but Joseph has earned a spot in that competition unless he signs with another team.
As for everyone else? I wouldn’t lose any sleep over them if they didn’t return next year. (I’d welcome Griffen back, but unfortunately, I’m not sure the team would be willing to take another chance on a beloved yet deeply conflicted player.)
APC: I know predictions are harder than ever with the uncertainty brought on by COVID, but what do you think is going to go down on Sunday?
ET: I’m going to be at Lambeau this Sunday, braving the single-digit temperatures and obnoxious taunts of Cheeseheads in hopes that my favorite team can pull off the improbable season sweep of the NFC’s top seed. I’d love nothing more than to see another upset in person. However, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come equipped with emotional insulation thicker than any coveralls or choppers I wear to the stadium. I think the writing’s on the wall for the fate of both Mike Zimmer and the 2021 Vikings, and it doesn’t end well for anyone. The Packers seem to be getting healthy and rounding into form at just the right time, and I think that will be on display for the nation to see Sunday night. The frigid temps could be a nice equalizer, but I see the Vikings’ ridiculous streak of 12 straight one-score games coming to an end, along with any dwindling hopes of qualifying for the playoffs. I’ll say Packers 31, Vikings 17.