So, the Vikings won a big game, on the road, against a quality opponent and in prime time last Sunday night. The game was intense and contested down to the final play, and it was a huge game for the head coach, who began his coaching career there and then pumped his fist after the final gun and littered his postgame locker room speech to the players with enthusiasm and, frankly,” expletives deleted.” And this coming Sunday, the 7-3 Vikings host the 3-6 Denver Broncos at U.S. Bank Stadium before heading into their bye week, so what is the biggest fear for Purple fans when tuning into the game?
That’s right, a letdown. The game is set up to be rife with opportunity for the team to look past the struggling Broncos and lay a massive egg on the field at The Vault (I think they call that a trap game). But they must not let down; they must keep the pedal to the medal and then enjoy (within reason) their bye week. They have to win all their home games this season (particularly those they are favored in) and steal a couple on the road—where they are currently 3-3.
The Vikings should win this game, if one were to glance at the team records alone. But the Broncos are better than they look on paper, and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer knows it. He started his Wednesday press conference with a no-letdown propaganda plea by trying to tell everyone within earshot (perhaps his players, most importantly) that they can’t overlook this opponent.
“Denver is a really good football team,” Zimmer said. “Every game they’ve played, the score has been within seven points or less except one. They’ve lost three games by a total of two points in each one of those games. They’ve got a really, really talented defense, number four in the league. They’ve got an outstanding secondary, fast linebackers. Offensively, the two runners are really good, Pro-Bowl last year with [Phillip] Lindsay. Courtland [Sutton] is a really good receiver. We’re going to have our hands full, and we’re going to have to play really well on Sunday to win.”
Just like you have to consider the Vikings’ opponents when you crow about their record (which, if the season ended today would have them in the playoffs), you have to consider that the Broncos are in last place in their division, but not because that can’t compete in this league. They have battled most everyone they’ve played and only been blown out once, plus they do have a quality win—a 16-0 shutout of the 5-5 Tennessee Titans. Records can be deceiving, and we must remember that the Broncos aren’t necessarily four games worse than Minnesota.
The Broncos generally struggle on offense and remain stout on defense. They lost their starting quarterback Joe Flacco a week ago and have been operating with backup Brandon Allen (is that three QBs named Allen now?). Allen has been cut three times in the league and was picked up off waivers earlier the season when Flacco went down (and out for the season) with a neck injury. Allen started last week and beat the Cleveland Browns, going 12 of 20 for 193 yards and two touchdown passes for a 125.6 quarterback rating. Not bad for a 27-year-old in his first game as a pro. There is little tape on him for the Vikings to study, and that will be the one of the challenges for them this week.
“It’s difficult, because he hasn’t been there the entire time,” Zimmer said. “You got a one-game summary of it, and really, we have to prepare for the offense and then we have to prepare for the players. With him being different and just trying to re-study everything that he’s done, it is more difficult having that small of a sample size.”
The biggest challenge this weekend will be the Broncos defense. The head coach of the Broncos is Vic Fangio, who was the architect of the tough defense in Chicago that has given the Vikings fits. Denver already had a nice personnel group on that side of the ball before Fangio showed up, and he has improved it—they are fourth in the NFL in yards allowed (309.7) and T-6th in points allowed (18.9, just behind the Vikings at 18.2). They are tougher against the pass (4th, allowing 202.1 ypg.) than the run (17th with 107.6 yards allowed), so look for a heapin’ helping of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison in this one.
You would think that Vikings assistant head coach Gary Kubiak and line coach Rick Dennison, who both came from the Broncos last season, would be of some help in the game planning for this one. But while Zimmer appreciates what Kubiak has brought to his squad, he downplays the former Broncos head coach’s insight for this game.
“Gary has been tremendous,” Zimmer said. “It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me since I’ve been here. He’s very smart. I talk to him a lot about what he’s done as a head coach. We talk a lot about offensive and defensive football. I just love his demeanor and the way that he and Kevin [Stefanski] can communicate during the games and also during the week on game plans.”
Regarding having the inside scoop on his former team, Zim said this about Kubiak:
“Yeah, some. He knows some of the guys, but he wasn’t as involved last year as he had been in the past. He knows some of the players, but I don’t know that it helps that much.”
Thus, the Vikings players will have to go out and win this on the field. They will want to keep grinding for another week to get to the bye with a good feeling and a very good record in the NFC. But that won’t happen without some great line blocking and even better protection from the offensive line, more pressure on this older newbie at QB and better play out of the secondary. The home crowd will help—they will still be jazzed over the big win last Sunday night. And they should help carry the Viking to victory. This one, like all of them, is essential to the postseason push.