Vikings Have 2 Weeks to Right the Ship before Playoffs

Can Set a Season
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Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

The Vikings winning formula in this 12-win season was not what we saw against the new-life Packers in Lambeau on Sunday

The Vikings have been successful in 2022, with the Kirk Cousins to Justin Jefferson record-breaking connection leading the way on offense. The defense has forced turnovers at key moments while playing bend-but-not-break. And the special teams have usually won their phase of games with a clutch kicker often delivering late victories. None of that happened in the damaging 41-17 loss that dropped the Vikings out of the NFC’s advantageous No. 2 seed, which gives a team at least two home playoff games with a first-round win.

2 Weeks
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You can’t beat a surging team needing a win to stay alive (as the Packers were on Sunday) with a minus-4 turnover differential (and the Packers scoring 28 points off the four turnovers, including a Pick 6). Add on not scoring a TD on 1st-and-Goal from the 1-yard line after blocking a punt, giving up a 105-yard kickoff return TD, missing two field goals, dropping at least two passes, losing two offensive line starters to injury in the first quarter and not adjusting your game plan to more quick passes to the NFL’s leading receiver plus having only two receptions combined from your top two receivers. Then there were no sacks, with only two QB pressures from your top two pass rushers and allowing 163 rushing yards. Yikes — as I said, that’s not the formula that led to 12 wins.  

Vikings Have 2 Weeks to Right the Ship before Playoffs

“We can learn from this,” Linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “We’ve got to play sound and get turnovers. We’ve got to tighten up, focus on us and the amount of mistakes and fix it quick.”

Coach Kevin O’Connell is now in a tricky spot heading into Chicago for the regular season finale against the 3-13 Bears. It’s unlikely with the 49ers hosting the lowly Cardinals, but the Vikings still have a shot at the No. 2 seed with a win and a San Fran loss. 

After the bad loss in Green Bay, the Vikings want to reestablish positive momentum heading into the playoffs, but O’Connell also wants to go into the wild card round on January 14-15 as healthy as possible. The best scenario would be to build a large first-half lead, pull the starters, and hang on. Chicago was hammered 41-10 in Detroit on Sunday, but the Vikings’ Week 5 game at home against the Bears came down to the wire, with the Vikings coming from behind in the 29-22 win.       

A victory in Soldier Field to finish the regular season at 13-4 also sounds better than 12-5 with a loss, which would mean a 4-4 finish in the last eight games after the Buffalo upset. It appears either way that the Vikings will host the Giants in the wildcard round since the G-Men are locked in at the sixth seed, and the Vikings have clinched at least the No. 3 seed (as I don’t see the No. 2 49ers losing at home to the lowly Cardinals). 

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings loss on the slick tundra of Lambeau Field:

1. Get well quick — Bradbury and O’Neill: After Austin Schlottmann suffered a broken fibula on the drive following Josh Metellus’ first-quarter blocked punt, the offense was out of sync with Chris Reed playing center for the first time in his career and then Brian O’Neill-a top tier right tackle in the league — exited with a calf injury. Late snaps by Reed led to two delay-of-game penalties and a couple of false starts. But what was O’Connell thinking when he called a middle run play on second and third downs from the Packer 1-yard line after Josh Metellus’ blocked punt (both Dalvin Cook runs were stuffed, and the Vikings settled for a field goal)? The Vikings definitely need Garrett Bradbury at center and O’Neill at his tackle spot in the postseason. 

2 Vikings Injuries
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2. I think O’Connell has been a solid and creative play caller most of the season, other than occasionally forgetting to run the ball. But I did not think he adjusted well after the O-line injuries by calling more quick passes to get Justin Jefferson more than five targets. There also were no wide receiver screens to J.J. and no jet sweeps for Jefferson or K.J. Osborn. Cousins didn’t see Jefferson open a couple of times or didn’t have time to throw. The Vikings QB didn’t seem to trust his protection would hold up when he went to Hockenson a couple of times as he was covered (such as on the Pick 6 by Darnell Savage). 

3. It’s going to be fun to watch the future battles between Jefferson and Jaire Alexander, who trash-talked before and after the game (calling J.J.’s Week 1 heroics against the Pack “a fluke” and after the win, Alexander said he “meant what I said”). Jefferson won’t forget Alexander doing the Griddy after a pass break-up when he was in coverage on J.J. The Pro Bowl corner lined up across from Jefferson on 20 of 31 snaps, but he had a lot of help over the top as J.J. was held to one catch for 15 yards (again inexcusable for the coaches to ever let that happen to the NFL’s best receiver).  

4. On the Packers drive following Kenny Clark’s third-quarter strip sack, the Vikings coaches didn’t see 10 men on the field on 3rd-and-10, so the Packers easily converted, and the Vikings had 12 on defense a couple of plays later. How do the coaches not see that so they can call timeouts in such situations?

How Can the Vikings Beat
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5. The Vikings must get better performances from Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter in the playoffs. They both played a significant role in the Vikings season-opening win over the Pack, but on Sunday, they had no sacks between them and only 2 QB hits by Hunter, which creates a big problem with a shaky secondary (and Chandon Sullivan was picked on for the second straight week plus there was a blown coverage by Metellus on the TD pass to tight end Robert Tonyan that made it 24-3). The run D also must be better.

6. Changes are needed on the kickoff coverage team as Jalen Nailor ran out of his lane, and several players were easily pushed aside on Keisean Nixon’s kickoff return TD. Troy Dye also was held on the play with no call. 

Greg Joseph’s streak of 21 straight made kicks ended with the missed 46-yard field goal in the first quarter that could’ve pulled the Vikings within eight points, and he later missed from 50. He needs to practice more outside before the Bears game and if the Vikings wind up in San Francisco and/or Philly during the playoffs.

7. As for many Vikings players slipping (including Jefferson and Hockenson) before changing to cleats with more studs, how about the coach insisting rather than suggesting the shoes with better traction the next time they play in such conditions? This was a big factor in killing Vikings drives early in the game. 

Around the NFL Observations in Week 17: 

1. Don’t look now, but Tom Brady will be playing in the postseason as usual, and it looks Rodgers will join him (with five straight wins, the Packers are the No. 7 seed if they beat Detroit at Lambeau on Sunday). Brady and the Bucs came from behind to beat the Panthers 30-24 and win the NFC South. They will be the No. 4 seed and likely host Dallas in the wildcard round unless the Cowboys win their finale in Washington while the Eagles lose to the Giants in Philly (not likely, with the Giants set at the No. 6 seed after crushing the Colts on Sunday so they’ll probably rest some key players such as Saquon Barkley and possibly Daniel Jones). But if Jalen Hurts is still out, it’s possible the Eagles could lose their third straight and open the door for San Francisco or Dallas to claim the top seed (49ers have the edge over the Cowboys on conference record).

Vikings Will Face 2 Scary Giants
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2. The Lions most likely killed their playoff chances with the Week 16 loss in Carolina, but they can get in if they upset the Packers while the Seahawks fall at home to the Rams. 

The Vikings will still get that second home game in the playoffs if they win their first-round game and the Packers or Lions knock off the 49ers (if they stay at No. 2). In that event, then the Vikings would likely host Dallas or Tampa Bay in the divisional round which is better than having to play at San Fran even if it’s Dallas (remembering the post-Buffalo hangover that contributed to getting blown out by the Cowboys in Week 11). And wouldn’t it be fun if the Vikings rose to No. 2 and hosted the Packers in the first round?      

3. The AFC top seed is still up for grabs between the Bills, Chiefs, and Bengals. After beating Miami on Sunday, New England is in position to make the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, but they have a tough task in going on the road to Buffalo. The Jaguars will win the AFC South and the AFC’s No. 4 seed if they beat the Titans in Jacksonville on Saturday night. Tennessee has lost six straight, while Jacksonville has won four in a row. 

4. Washington suffered a particularly bad home loss to an already eliminated Browns team after Coach Ron Rivera started a rusty Carson Wentz (three interceptions) over Taylor Heinicke. After the game, it was embarrassing for Rivera to say in his press conference that he didn’t realize his team would be eliminated if the Packers beat the Vikings. It’s a train wreck for the Commanders, from the bad QB decision-making by Rivera (plus his press conference comments on the playoffs) to the team’s owner Daniel Snyder with all his organizational problems resulting in public pressure to sell the team.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl