What will they have to overcome to get it done? We checked in with Christopher Gates of The Daily Norseman for a look at what the Vikings have accomplished this season and how they stack up with the Packers.
Acme Packing Company: The Vikings have certainly had an interesting season, seemingly pulling a win out of the fire on almost a weekly basis. While that’s definitely exciting, it’s led to some conversation about the Vikings perhaps not being quite as good as their record indicates, a lot like we heard about the 2019 Packers. Where do you fall in that discussion? Are the Vikings overachieving or are they a strong team who’s pulling things together at the right time?
Christopher Gates: I think the team is overachieving a bit, sure. I think any team that goes 12-3 can be classed as “overachieving” in some aspect or aspects, but it’s not like this is a bad football team. People make a lot out of the Vikings going 11-0 in one-score games, but they played in 14 one-score games last year and went 6-8. They’re getting a few more bounces than they got last year, and I don’t think anyone will deny that. But they’ve also outscored their opponents by 78 points in the fourth quarter and overtime this year, which I’m pretty sure is the biggest margin in the league. Unlike the last couple of years under Mike Zimmer, this team honestly believes that they’re never out of a game, even when they’re down 33 points going into the locker room at halftime, and they’ve managed to do enough to be successful. Is it sustainable? We keep hearing it’s not but it’s been sustained for 15 games so far, so maybe the Vikings know something that we don’t. Bill Parcells always said that you are what your record says you are, and right now it says that only one team in the NFL has more wins than the Vikings do. People can be up in arms about how they got there, but all that matters at this point is that they’ve gotten there.
APC: Now that you’ve had almost a full season to get a look at his offense, what do you think of Kevin O’Connell? It sure doesn’t look like any of the Vikings’ big names have dropped off this year.
CG: I do like Kevin O’Connell a lot. I briefly mentioned the last couple of years of the Zimmer era in my previous answer, and O’Connell has brought a completely new culture to the Vikings. I’m sure that his youth has quite a bit to do with it, as he’s currently the second-youngest coach in the NFL. I’m one of those people that thought that Zimmer reached a point that a lot of coaches reach in that his message just wasn’t getting through anymore and a change was needed. The Vikings were patient and waited for O’Connell until the Rams’ Super Bowl run was done last year, and that patience appears to be paying off. O’Connell has had his hiccups as a rookie coach, to be certain, but there have been far more positives than negatives thus far. He’s more willing to adapt his offensive approach based on what the opponent is giving them and he’s clearly given Kirk Cousins a confidence boost that we never saw when Zimmer was coaching him. I’m not sure how many of the rumors about the relationship between Zimmer and Cousins were true, but I do know that O’Connell and Cousins have a great relationship and that’s been a big part of what’s made the Vikings a much better team this season.
APC: The Vikings made one of the bigger trade deadline splashes this year when they acquired Detroit Lions tight end TJ Hockenson. How has he integrated into the offense? Is he the contributor Minnesota hoped for?
CG: Hockenson got integrated into the offense faster than anyone would have thought, thanks in part to having a former teammate (QB David Blough, who has since moved on to the Arizona Cardinals’ active roster) helping him to study the playbook and get ready for his first game just a few days after the trade deadline. Essentially, Hockenson has been everything the Vikings spent three-plus years hoping that Irv Smith Jr. would turn into, and he’s had a significant impact on this offense in the time that he’s been here. He’s already caught 52 passes in his time in Minnesota, including a Vikings franchise-high 13 last week in the win over the Giants. Teams are still going to devote most of their energy to stopping Justin Jefferson, but Hockenson gives the Vikings another capable player that can make them pay for doing that. When Kevin O’Connell was with the Rams, they managed to turn Tyler Higbee into a significant weapon at tight end, and Hockenson is (in my opinion) significantly better than Higbee, so it will be interesting to see how he continues to grow into the offense for the rest of this season and into next.
APC: Both Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith have surpassed 10 sacks this year. How would you neutralize the Vikings’ dynamic pass-rushing duo, short of turning to prayer?
CG: The best thing you can probably do is wait for defensive coordinator Ed Donatell to neutralize Hunter and Smith himself. Packer fans are familiar with Donatell’s work, and I don’t think he’s changed that much from his time in Green Bay. There’s been a lot of debate as to whether or not the switch to a primarily 3-4 defense was a good idea for the Vikings given their personnel, but the issues that the team has had with the switch have been exacerbated by Donatell seemingly refusing to use the personnel he has properly. There have been way too many occasions where he has Hunter and Smith — .two of the NFL’s better pass rushers — dropping into coverage. This doesn’t make even the tiniest bit of sense, particularly when there have been a lot of stretches this year where the Vikings’ pass rush has completely disappeared. Sure, you can do it occasionally to change things up, but not with the frequency that Donatell has been doing it this year. Things appear to have changed a little bit recently, with Hunter picking up 3.5 sacks over the course of the past couple of games, but Donatell really needs to unleash those two guys going forward if the Vikings are going to be more than one-and-done in the playoffs.
APC: DraftKings Sportsbook has the over/under for this game set at 48.5. Vegas is looking for a shootout. How about you? Do you think we’ll see a high-scoring back-and-forth, or will this be more one-sided?
CG: I don’t know if we’re going to see the sort of offense that would have these teams reaching that number. I know that both teams can score points in bunches, but they’ve also had their issues at times. The Packers are one of the worst red zone offenses in the NFL while the Vikings, for whatever reason, seem to have a stretch in each game where the offense decides to take a nap for a quarter (or two). I think this is going to be a close game and will probably see a few lead changes, but if I were to bet I’d probably go under the number on that line, to be honest. Both of these teams are playing for something important, with the Packers still alive for a playoff spot and the Vikings trying to hold on to the #2 seed in the NFC (and possibly remain in play for #1 depending on how the Eagles’ game goes earlier that afternoon), so it’s going to be pretty intense. Hopefully the Vikings can overcome their Jim Nantz/Tony Romo jinx and get the job done on Sunday, but I don’t think it’s going to be as high-scoring as that number predicts.