Lessons for Vikings from the Conference Championships

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Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

While star skill position players add to a team’s sizzle — and ticket sales — the main lesson to be learned by the Vikings and 29 other NFL teams on Sunday is the trenches are where games and championships are most often won, along, of course, with having a great QB. 

Vince Lombardi would’ve loved these title games and how they were won. If you watched the Eagles and Chiefs closely in their wins over the 49ers and Bengals, you saw better performances on the offensive and defensive lines as the keys to their victories. Same thing with the Rams in the Super Bowl last year. 

Lessons for Vikings from the Conference Championships

Yes, Patrick Mahomes is terrific, even hobbling around on a sprained ankle. And Jalen Hurts is a great two-way threat to run or pass. But the line play was the key reason these two teams will meet in Super Bowl LVII on February 12. 

Philadelphia’s dynamic pass rush knocked out both 49er quarterbacks — Brock Purdy with an elbow injury and Josh Johnson (concussion). Purdy was forced to return but couldn’t throw the ball downfield, so the game was essentially over in the third quarter. The Eagles D held San Fran’s top-five offense to a minuscule 164 total yards and had three sacks and 7 QB hits. Meanwhile, Philly’s offensive line, led by All-Pro center Jason Kelce paved the way for a 148-yard rushing day with four TDs on the ground while allowing the 49ers top-ranked defense only one sack and 2 QB hits on Hurts. 

Lessons for
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. © Armond Feffer/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK.

The Bengals went into Kansas City missing three starters on the offensive line, and it showed up with five sacks and 12 QB hits on superstar QB Joe Burrow who also threw two interceptions under pressure. Cincy was held to 71 yards rushing (30 yards came on Burrow scrambles). The Chiefs didn’t run it well, with only 42 rushing yards, but they were better in pass protection than the Bengals, with three sacks and five QB hits on Mahomes. 

This should tell Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Coach Kevin O’Connell that they need better play on the offensive line and defensive front seven moving forward after a playoff loss to the Giants in which they were outrushed 142-61 and Kirk Cousins was hit 11 times while the G-Men’s Daniel Jones absorbed four QB hits and three sacks. The Giants D also had five tackles-for-loss. 

A big factor was the Vikings were missing top tackle Brian O’Neill, and center Garrett Bradbury was a bit rusty in his return from a five-game absence with a back injury. Guard Ed Ingram had rookie growing pains this season, and he should be better going forward. Bottom line is it’s exceedingly difficult for Cousins to get the ball to superstar receiver Justin Jefferson when he doesn’t have time to throw, and we saw that in the playoff loss and a couple of other losses this season (such as Week 2 in Philly).

1 Vikings Free Agent Could Sign a Huge Deal
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On defense, the Vikings didn’t get enough impact from edge rusher Za’Darius Smith in the wild card game (no sacks or pressures) or over the last eight games (1/2 sack). The Vikings also needed better run defense from their front seven against the Giants. They need to re-sign defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, an above-average interior pass rusher (he had a career-high 28 QB pressures with 2.5 sacks) who can stop the run or eat blocks to free up the linebackers at 325 pounds. 

Another lesson to be learned is that neither the Eagles nor Chiefs have a running back making the kind of money Dalvin Cook was paid last season (an 11.883 million cap hit). Eagles lead back Miles Sanders had a $1.7 million cap hit on the final year of his rookie contract, and Chiefs No. 1 back Isiah Pacheco is a rookie seventh-rounder who made $784,000 this season. 

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Perhaps the Vikings brass will lean towards trading or cutting Dalvin Cook to save $7.9 million on the 2023 cap and re-sign a very good back in free agent-to-be Alexander Mattison. They also have inexpensive backs Kene Nwangwu and Ty Chandler (on their rookie deals) as backups. They could put the cap savings on Cook and, with an extension for Cousins (to lower his $36 million cap hit), towards more quality depth on the O-line or a free agent signing of a starting guard to push Ingram or a new center if Bradbury is too pricey to re-sign in free agency. And also use some cap money that is freed up to help the defensive front seven and with quality additions at cornerback along with Justin Jefferson’s extension. 

That fine-tuning of the roster could turn a 13-4 team with a first-round exit into a final-four or perhaps even a Super Bowl team.          

Around the NFL Observations from Conference Championship Weekend & a look ahead to the Super Bowl:

1. The 49ers are a great team with quarterback issues. They now have four quarterbacks coming off injuries. The team invested a lot of draft choices when they traded up to select Trey Lance third overall in 2021, and he started two games in 2022 before an ankle injury knocked him out. Jimmy Garoppolo stepped in and played well before he broke his foot, and he’s headed to free agency. Then rookie seventh-rounder Brock Purdy took over and was unbeaten in seven starts before his elbow injury in Philly. Josh Johnson came in and suffered a concussion. 

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Now GM John Lynch and Coach Kyle Shanahan must decide if they go back to Lance, let Garoppolo walk and have Purdy as the No. 2, or give Purdy a legitimate shot to compete with Lance for No. 1. One thing for sure is Josh Johnson is not the answer after watching his poor performance in relief of Purdy on Sunday. And Garoppolo is probably too expensive, given his injury history and Purdy proving to be a viable option if Lance doesn’t come through.

2. There was a lot of shaky officiating in the two title games, especially the missed call of what should’ve been an incomplete pass on the Eagles’ opening TD drive (on the 29-yard pass on 4th-and-3 from Hurts to DeVonta Smith). The NFL replay official at the game or those in the command center in New York should have changed the call, or Shanahan could have challenged the call (he said they didn’t see the angle on replay where the ball hit the ground until it was too late but it was such a big play that it was worth a coaches’ challenge). 

But the game-changing out-of-bounds hit on Mahomes by the Bengals’ Joseph Ossai that set up the winning field goal was definitely the right call.  

3. The Super Bowl will feature two dynamic QBs in Mahomes and Hurts and the All-Pro Kelce brothers on opposing teams—center Jason for the Eagles and tight end Travis, the younger brother, for the Chiefs. 

It also will be an emotional experience for Chiefs Coach Andy Reid, who was the Eagles head coach for 14 years before being fired after the 2012 season. He’s now taken the Chiefs to three Super Bowls in the last four years, with a victory over San Francisco in 2019 and a loss to Tampa Bay in 2020. Reid says he has a good relationship with the Eagles organization and owner Jeff Lurie, but I’m sure he’d love to stick it to his old team with a big win on Super Sunday.   

I’ll make my Super Bowl prediction and give my keys to the game next Wednesday.

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