Vikings Face Broncos in Battle of Hot Teams: Keys to a Vikings Sunday Night Victory
What was expected to be a cakewalk a month ago has turned into another challenging road test for the surging Vikings as they head to Denver for a Sunday night game.
Vikings Face Broncos in Battle of Hot Teams: Keys to a Vikings Sunday Night Victory
The 6-4 Vikings are the NFL’s hottest team with a five-game winning streak, but the 4-5 Broncos have rebounded from a 1-5 start and are now tied with the Eagles for the second-longest winning streak at three. Their defense that gave up 70 points to Miami in Week 3 has turned it around by allowing only 16 points per game over the past three games, including nine points by the Chiefs in an upset win in Week 8 when the Broncos forced five turnovers (including two interceptions and a lost fumble by Patrick Mahomes).
In last Monday’s 24-22 upset in Buffalo, Denver intercepted Josh Allen twice and had two more takeaways on fumbles. Broncos QB Russell Wilson is back to being a dangerous runner and creative passer who mostly utilizes the short passing game (his 201 yards per game through the air ranks 26th). Wilson is protecting the ball better than last season when he ranked 27th in passer rating (a career-low 84.4 with 16 TDs and 11 interceptions).
Wilson was a thorn in the Vikings side during his Seahawks years (he won his first six games vs. Minnesota until the Vikings finally beat him in 2021). He has thrown 18 TD passes with only four interceptions this season (fourth-ranked in passer rating at 104.0) in a more conservative offense under new head coach and long-time Vikings rival Sean Payton (from his Saints years that include playoff losses to Minnesota in the Minneapolis Miracle game in 2017 and the 2019 overtime game in New Orleans).
A problem that has remained for Wilson is his protection, as he’s been sacked 30 times (third most in the league) after absorbing a league-high 55 sacks last season. And the Broncos’ offense can bog down as they did on four of their drives that started in Buffalo territory but only resulted in six points on Monday night.
The Vikings-Broncos game was almost certainly going to be flexed to a day game when both teams got off to 1-4 starts. Now it’s turned into an attractive primetime matchup of two teams on a roll, with Wilson back to being a top QB and Josh Dobbs the best current story in the NFL with his last two prolific performances (three TD passes, no interceptions, and two rushing TDs in the victories over the Falcons and Saints).
The Vikings are 1 ½ games ahead in the wildcard race for the final seed, ½ game back of Seattle and Dallas for the first and second wildcards, and 1 ½ games behind the Lions in the NFC North and want to stay close before facing Detroit twice in the final three weeks. The Broncos are one game behind Houston for the final AFC wildcard spot.
Here are my keys to a Vikings win in the Mile High city:
1. Win the turnover battle: this, as always, will be a critical factor with both teams on a recent tear in the turnover ratio during their winning streaks. The Vikings are plus 5 the past five games (now minus 3 for the season) after having two interceptions by the defense with no giveaways on offense (for the first time this season) against the Saints. The Broncos have nine takeaways in the past two games against the Chiefs and Bills and are plus 3 in turnover ratio for the season. Both Dobbs and Wilson have not thrown an interception in the past two games.
2. Get the running game going: Denver ranks dead last against the run and just allowed 192 rushing yards by the Bills (with Dalvin Cook’s younger brother James gaining 109 yards on 12 carries, 9.1 average). Alexander Mattison is in concussion protocol and may miss this game, so it’s a great opportunity for Ty Chandler (off his best game as a pro with 45 yards rushing and his first career TD on a wildcat QB run) and Kene Nwangwu if he’s the No. 2 back this week.
The offensive line, with help from the tight ends, C.J. Ham, and the wide receivers, must open holes for the backs and for Dobbs on designed runs, run-pass options, and scrambles. Running the ball well also will set up the play-action game that O’Connell loves to utilize.
3. Dobbs stay hot passing and running: Can the “Passtronaut” win his third straight game and lead the Purple to 7-4? His solid play has been amazing, and he has another week in Kevin O’Connell’s system.
4. Starting receivers return? And look for Hockenson: it appears K.J. Osborn will be back in the lineup from his concussion, and Justin Jefferson is close to returning, but it may not be this Sunday night. At least having Osborn back will help Dobbs, and when Jefferson also returns to combine with Osborn and star rookie Jordan Addison, it will give Dobbs one of the league’s best trios. Brandon Powell also has been a valuable target for Dobbs in recent weeks.
Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson is coming off a huge game (11 catches, 134 yards, 1 TD) and has established a great connection with Dobbs the past two weeks. Denver has allowed a 111.4 passer rating to tight ends, so it sets up as another potential big game for Hockenson, whose 71 receptions rank third in the league.
5. Stop the run, including Wilson scrambles, and cover Wilson’s short flip passes to his backs: Javonte Williams (436 rushing yards) had a strong game in Buffalo with 110 combined yards rushing and receiving, so he must be contained by the Vikings’ much-improved run D that ranks 10th and held the Saints to 65 yards on the ground. Wilson doesn’t run as often as in his Seattle years, but he’s still a threat to scramble and picked up several first downs against the Bills.
Ben Powers is a fine guard who has missed practice this week (foot). It will hurt the Denver run game and their pass protection if he is out on Sunday.
6. Linebackers step up with Hicks on IR and sack Wilson: the Vikings’ depth has been tested on many positions this season, and with Jordan Hicks out with his shin issue, the pressure is on Ivan Pace to relay Brian Flores’ defensive calls and contain Wilson’s scrambles and short flip passes to the backs. We’ll see if Brian Asamoah or Troy Dye gets the start at the other inside backer spot, or it could be Anthony Barr, who was signed to the practice squad this week. The speedy Asamoah did some good things last year as a rookie but has been hurt most of this season (ankle). He’s due to step up.
It’s a great week for the Vikings pass rushers to get after Wilson, who has been sacked 30 times (ninth most) after being the most sacked QB (55) last season. Danielle Hunter and D.J. Wonnum, along with Josh Metellus and Harrison Smith as blitzers, could have a field day, but look for Wilson to get rid of the ball quickly.
7. Secondary cover good WRs: Akayleb Evans is fighting a calf injury and could be out, so rookie Mekhi Blackmon likely would start, and I think Blackmon is a better cover corner than Evans (but Evans is developing into a good run stopper and had a big forced fumble in the Atlanta game). Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy are talented receivers who usually don’t see a lot of targets, and rookie second-rounder Marvin Mims is a deep threat. Samaje Perine (25 catches for 266 yards) is a fine receiving back.
8. Joseph needs to make all his kicks as he did in Atlanta and control Mims in the return game: Greg Joseph had a big miss from 54 yards that would have given the Vikings a three-score lead in the fourth quarter last week. He was a perfect 5 for 5 on kicks at Atlanta and needed to kick well in the cool night air (but there’s no snow in the forecast, which is fortunate for mid-November in Denver).
Mims is one of the top returners in the league with a 33.6-yard average (1 TD) on kickoff returns and a 20.7-yard average on punt returns, which leads the league. The Vikings must contain him with deep kickoffs from Joseph and punts that force a fair catch or go out of bounds from Ryan Wright, and the cover units must play well when Mims gets a return opportunity.
9. Continue to have fewer penalties than opponents: the Vikings consistently have fewer penalties than the opposition during the winning streak.
Dobbs remains the key for the Vikings with his passing and running, along with adjusting to the loss of Hicks, who would’ve had a significant role in containing Wilson’s scrambling and flip passes to his backs (and that responsibility now falls primarily to Pace).
The Vikings are the more talented team, especially if their wide receiver corps is back to full strength or closer to it. This could be Chandler’s first big game in the national spotlight, considering the Broncos’ poor run defense. And the Vikings’ defense should be able to sack Wilson and contain the conservative Denver offense. This should be another close game that I pick the Vikings to win 26-23. It would be their second straight primetime win after the 49ers victory and keep the momentum going into another primetime game on Monday night at home after Thanksgiving against the Bears.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The biggest game of Week 11 is the Super Bowl rematch with 8-1 Philadelphia at 7-2 Kansas City on Monday night. Both teams come off their byes, and it will be a fun game to watch with top QBs Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts leading their teams. The Chiefs’ defense is playing well, and I like Mahomes and Travis Kelce to make enough plays against a shaky Eagles secondary to get the win.
2. A critical AFC North matchup of 6-3 contenders: The outlook of Steelers at Browns changed with Deshaun Watson out for the year with a shoulder injury. Cleveland’s return on their $230 million investment in Watson is not looking good two years into the deal, as Watson has played 12 games out of a possible 34 due to his suspension last year and multiple injuries this season.
The Browns’ defense is No. 1 in the league and will be a test for QB Kenny Pickett. Watson was 5-1 as the starter (but only with an 84.3 passer rating as the defense led the way), while backups Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker went 1-2 with one TD pass and eight interceptions between them (the rookie Thompson-Robinson gets the start this week, and he threw three picks in his only previous start against the Ravens). The Steelers have been outgained in every game but find a way to win. They beat the Browns 26-22 at home in Week 2, and they should emerge victorious gain.
3. In the NFC North, the Lions should easily handle the Bears in Detroit, with Justin Fields expected to start as his thumb has healed from the injury he sustained in the Week 6 loss to the Vikings on a Danielle Hunter hit. The Lions need to get their defense back on track after the Chargers gashed them last week in the Lions’ 41-38 win. The Packers host the up-and-down Chargers, whose defense was awful against the Lions (533 yards allowed, including 200 rushing). I think the Chargers get the win to stay in the AFC playoff hunt.
4. Aaron Rodgers can’t shut up even when he’s sidelined. He said this week on his weekly media pulpit (The Pat McAfee Show) about his torn Achilles timeline: “If we are not in it in three or four weeks, that could take it a different way. I expect us to be in it, and I expect to come back.” The Sunday night loss in Las Vegas certainly didn’t help the cause for Rodgers and the now 4-5 Jets, as Zach Wilson threw a bad red-zone interception late in the game.
The next two weeks are critical with divisional games at Buffalo and home to Miami (who they also face Week 15 in Miami). The Texans and Browns are other contending teams on the remaining schedule. Even if Rodgers is cleared medically, we probably won’t see him in action until 2024 because a Jets winning streak over the next several weeks is unlikely.
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