On the heels of their “get right” game against the Detroit Lions last Sunday, the Vikings head to Los Angeles to take on the 5-8 Chargers in the next step of their march to the playoffs. The Chargers are an interesting team, in so much as they seem to be a more talented group than the sum of their parts, which has resulted in a last place tie in the AFC West and elimination from the postseason.
And that is why the Vikings must beware of the non-electric Chargers.
The Chargers have been competitive all season, losing all eight games by just one score and compiling a plus-38 point differential. For a last place that is remarkable. It has a bit to do with close losses and blowout wins—a 20-point win over the Miami Dolphins, 15 over the Green Bay Packers and, last weekend, a 35-point victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That means the Chargers can score points. Quarterback Philip Rivers, a 13-year veteran still at the helm, leads a packed backfield of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler and a top-notch wide receiving corps of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and tight end Hunter Henry. The Vikings cannot overlook an offense that was part of a 45-point barrage last Sunday.
Rivers, at 38-years old, is the team’s emotional leader, and he doesn’t do too badly on the statistical board either. With 3,748 yards, he is ranked third in the NFL. He has 20 touchdown passes and captains an offense that scores an average of 22.2 points per game (ranked 18th). Rivers’ downfall is his 15 interceptions, which rank third in the league. As he has gotten older, perhaps his arm is no longer cashing all the checks his mind wants to write.
The running back situation got off to a bumpy start with Gordon holding out and Ekeler taking the reins—and doing quite well with it. Now both players are in the backfield, and Ekeler is a nice pass-catching alternative to Gordon’s ground and pound. If the Chargers watched the Seahawks play the Vikings a couple of weeks ago, they will likely try to establish the run against the front seven that struggled in that game. Last week, Detroit’s impotent running game provided no challenge for the Vikings front.
On defense, the Chargers aren’t too shabby, statistically, either. They have given up the fourth fewest yards in the league (304.8), with their strength coming in the passing game (ranked fourth with 196.6 yards allowed per game). They are ranked 187 against the run, giving up 108.2 rushing yards per game. But in the most important metric, the scoreboard, the Chargers are ranked eighth, allowing 19.3 points per game—that is right behind the Viking defense, which is seventh at 19.2 ppg.
The Chargers employ a decent front line, including defensive end Joey Bosa, who shows up in the eighth spot on the sack leaders list with 10.5 this season. He will have Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins trying to get the ball out quickly or rolling away from Bosa to avoid getting pummeled into submission.
A key for the Vikings will be the viability of running back Dalvin Cook. Cook has been playing with an injured shoulder in recent weeks, and last Sunday saw less duty than normal to keep him intact as the season progresses. That is not detrimental if he continues to be limited, as his backup Alexander Mattison performed well last Sunday in his highest snap count of the season (27 to Cook’s 34 snaps). Mattison had 14 carries for 46 yards and two receptions for 18 yards in the game.
Look for the Vikings to try to establish the run against the Chargers’ weaker run defense (and also to keep Bosa honest in pursuit of the quarterback). Hopefully, wideout Adam Thielen can rejoin the offense to give the Chargers’ defense more to think about in the passing game, but his progress thus far after missing five games (and most of a sixth) doesn’t show a lot of promise. Thielen is important to the team’s playoff chances should they get there, but he could use some time back on the field getting his timing down with Cousins.
In the meantime, Stefon Diggs continues to flourish and has become one of the top deep threats in the league. And Bisi Johnson, Irv Smith, Jr., Kyle Rudolph and even Laquon Treadwell have stepped into the breech. But the return of a healthy Thielen would give the vaunted Chargers pass defense something else to think about.
Regardless, the Vikings will put a decent offense on the field out in Los Angeles on Sunday. It has been, with or without Thielen, the strength of this team in 2019, while the Vikings defense (which may be suffering by comparison to its own superlative recent history) has struggled at times. They put up a dominating performance last week at home, but that was against a third-string quarterback and a team that is cashing it in for the year.
The bottom line this week is that the Vikings need a better showing from the offense than last Sunday and a similar showing by the defense to set up the big game on Dec. 23 against the Green Bay Packers. If the Vikings win on Sunday and the Packers lose to the surging Chicago Bears, that game will loom huge. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Vikings first need to give the Chargers a reason to turn off the lights for the season and go home. Says here, they will.
Minnesota—24, Los Angeles Chargers—20