On paper, games like this week’s tilt between the Vikings and Washington on Thursday Night Football should not played. It’s already over. The red hot 5-2 Vikings, winners of three straight in convincing fashion, at home against lowly 1-6 Washington, whose only win came in the basement bowl against the 0-7 Miami Dolphins—this should be a blowout for the host squad.
Or a trap game.
You will hear that phrase often this week, a phrase meaning that a wounded team may rise up against a prohibitive favorite and, in this “any given Sunday” league, knock them off and derail their post season hopes (let us not forget the Buffalo game from last season). But the only ones who should be concerned about that is the coaching staff of the Minnesota Vikings, who will need to keep momentum going and maintain the focus of their charges as Washington comes to town.
That shouldn’t be a problem, however, as the storylines (which are written on paper), are ripe for the picking in this harvest weekend game. Washington running back Adrian Peterson comes back to the state where he built his Hall of Fame career (and left town in a cloud of controversy); Washington quarterback Case Keenum comes “home” where locals shoveled his driveway and he engineered the Minneapolis Miracle that vaulted the 2017 Vikings into the NFC Championship game; and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (whom the Vikings chose to pay over Keenum) plays against the former team that let him go via free agency in 2018 and still is trying to settle on a signal caller.
When the opening kick takes place, those ripe storylines move to the background and the Xs and Os will take over. And Cousins, who earlier this season was reminded of his lessons about not reading what’s said about him in the media, has already batted away the storyline of the bitter ex-QB champing at the bit to stick to it his former bosses. Cousins reportedly told Mark Rosen of KFAN that he holds no ill will against the team that drafted him eight years ago. He talks more about the friendships and relationships he has there. He is not looking to embarrass the team that drafted him but never really embraced him and later passed on him.
That’s too bad, because an edgy Cousins is an effective Cousins. We have seen him play with a chip on his shoulder the past three weeks and it has been great: three games with more than 300 yards passing per game; 10 touchdown passes to one pick over that span (and the past two games with four TD passes in each—the first time he has done that in his career); and his completion percentage has been more than 81, 75 and 70 in those three games, respectively. He has been on a roll.
“I’m going to talk to him a little bit today about some of those things [his emotions],” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Cousins. “He needs to just focus on his job, focus on getting guys in the right place and doing what he’s supposed to do. There’s always some emotions when you’re playing a team that you went against. I’m sure Adrian and Case are doing the same thing, right? It’s more important that we focus on what we have to do, and his job and what he has to do than worry about all the other things that go along with it.”
For Keenum’s part, the short week pretty much precludes any time to reminisce about his short time in Minnesota, and in his weekly press conference he was already tired of the questions about returning to the site of the “Miracle” and playing his old team. He acknowledged that he knows the NFL is a business and that the Vikings made a business decision in not resigning him. In fact, as a league journeyman of six different teams in eight seasons, few players know the business side of the league better than he does, and Keenum says he actually gets to play his old team quite often—at least that is what seems like to him.
“There’s really no need to get more amped up for any game in this league,” Keenum said, “especially when you’re playing a team like this with a great defense. Man, we’ve got to give it everything we’ve got no matter what. The fact that it’s my old team, I’ve played long enough to where I feel like if I keep going like I’m going I might play against my old team every week. It’s adding up now, so it’s just a normal game for me.”
As to Peterson, he is winding down his HOF career from a quasi-starter role in Washington and injury has found him returning to lead-back status. So far this season, his opportunities have been slim, until the past two games in which both usage and production have risen (he had 23 carries for 118 yards against Miami two weeks ago and has a rushing and receiving touchdown this season). But he will have a front row seat to watch the man who replaced him in Minnesota in league-leading rusher Dalvin Cook. Perhaps Peterson’s angst toward his old team has settled some, and he won’t want to destroy them as he has felt in the past rematches. But when he gets between the line he will run as hard as he always has in this state.
“Typically, those guys, once they get older, they slow down,” Zimmer said of AP. “He’s always had the speed and he’s always had the physicality of the way he runs. He’s going to lower his pads and try and run through tackles. Typically, those kind of guys get beat up once they get older, and I don’t see that with him.”
So, the Vikings better beware the emotional AP. But when considered as a whole, the Washington squad is lacking. Some fans are calling for a fire sale and rebuild, and the team just fired longtime head coach Jay Gruden for assistant coach Bill Callahan. On paper (or online, as it were), though, they are a wreck, and with the numbers, it doesn’t get much better.
The Washington offense behind Keenum, currently, is ranked 28th in the league with 267.6 total yards per game. They are 31st in passing (182.9 yards per game) and a little better in rushing (ranked 24th with 84.7 yards per game). That has resulted in a paltry 12.9 points per game, which is ranked 30th in the NFL. Barring any miracles, the Vikings defense should be able to show better than they have in recent weeks and shut down the Washington attack, as they are giving up 15.1 points at home.
On defense, the squad is a little better: 21st in total yards allowed (370.4 ypg.), 12th against the pass (236.0 ypg.) and 27th against the run (134.4 ypg.). They do give up 25.1 points per game (which is ranked 21st), and the Vikings are currently scoring more than 33 points per game at home. With receiver Adam Thielen likely sitting out to rest his ailing hamstring, expect the Vikings to offer the Washington defenders a heaping helping of Cook (and a dash of edgy Kirk in there for good measure).
Still, on paper they shouldn’t play this game. The Vikings should roll and Washington should start thinking about the offseason in earnest. But that’s not how the NFL (or pumpkins) roll—that’s why they play the games. In this pre-Halloween game for Minnesota, it is scary to think about losing to Washington. The Vikings must hope there is less of Washington Irving (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and more of winless Washington striving to the team that comes to U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday night.
It’s all fun and good on paper (and on computer screens—where I get to bring up one of the scariest stories of my youth), but the Vikings do have to face Washington on the field—where they will defeat them soundly and keep the season going.