It’s all out in front of the Vikings. Everything they want is in their hands to grab it. They hold a 6-2 record and a two-game lead in the NFC North Division with the second half of the season to go, and everything is in their power to obtain (well, almost everything since they don’t have home field throughout the playoffs–although they could end up with it). All they have to do is manifest their own destiny and they will win the division. And that manifesting starts this week in Washington.
The Vikings travel to Washington to take on the 4-4 team in the nation’s capital—just a week after Washington beat the Seattle Seahawks on the road, despite employing a makeshift offensive line. That victory was the kind of last-minute, dramatic win that can build momentum for a team, so the Vikings will have to awaken from their bye-week slumber in time to beat a rolling Washington team.
It won’t be easy. The Vikings don’t often do well against Washington (12-13-0 overall) and they don’t do particularly well as the road team of the matchup (losers of the last two road games in Washington and losers of Adrian Peterson’s ACL in the game before that—which Minnesota won). At .500, Washington isn’t dead yet but the Philadelphia Eagles have a substantial lead in the NFC East at 8-1), and the Wild Card opportunities are definitely in play, so don’t expect Washington to roll over.
Washington has played one of the toughest schedules in the league in the first half, with quality wins over the Seahawks and a 27-20 road win over the 6-2 Los Angeles Rams, one of the surprises of the season, thus far. Washington plays a gritty and tough style of ball and will not let injuries to their offensive line derail their season.
Save for lingering injuries, little of that above means much in this game. The NFL plays their games one week at a time, and this week the Vikings should be ready to roll. The talk all bye-has been the quarterback situation, and on Wednesday, it finally happened, as head the Vikings announced the activation of Teddy Bridgewater.
The Vikings made room for Bridgewater on the active roster by putting quarterback Sam Bradford on the injured reserve and ending his season. (The Vikings did not want to place point rookie QB Kyle Sloter on their practice squad, as they would expose him to be poached by another team—perhaps the Vikings are finally proactively looking forward at the future of this position.)
“Yes, it’s disappointing,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Bradford. “The guy worked extremely hard to try and get back. He spent a whole bunch of his own money trying everything to get back and it just didn’t work out. Hopefully we’ll be able to get him back when he gets healthy.”
The Bradford news is distressing. He saw Dr. James Andrews (for the second time), sorting out possible options for his knee, and he reportedly decided to scope where they cleaned up his cartilage and smoothed out a bone spur, which means he is lost for the season, and potentially, to the Vikings, as he is in the final year of his contract. This decision puts Bradford’s career in some jeopardy, and it especially distressing when we watched him play one of the best games of his career on opening night against New Orleans. We will have to stay tuned to this story.
Meanwhile, Bridgewater has been practicing, trying to get himself back on the field, and now falls in line somewhere on the depth chart for the foreseeable future. The Vikings, at the very least, will want to see what Teddy can handle in game situations and pressure before the season is out.
We had guys run at him [in practice],” Zimmer said of Bridgewater. “There’s no tackling in training camp on the quarterbacks either. First time he’s tackled will be in a game, just like it would be in the regular season.”
And while that is all going on, Case Keenum was going about his business, as the winner of five games for the Vikings this season. What looks like a convoluted and jumbled mess at the quarterback position for Minnesota just might be the best situation they have had since 2009. They appear to have options, even though the best ones are still major unknowns at this point.
But that, also, is slightly beside the point of this game. The Vikings will start Keenum and dance with the one who brought them—that being the defense. The Vikings number-four ranked defense in yards allowed (282.1 per game) and number-three ranked in points allowed (16.9 per game) will tell the tale in this game.
If Washington tries to running the ball with their T-21 ranked rushing offense (98.6 yards per game) against the Vikings number-three ranked rush defense (81.4 yards per game), Minnesota will shut them down. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins leads his team more effectively through the air (ranked 11th with 244.4 passing yards per game), but then that will expose him to the Vikings front seven, which includes Everson Griffen and his 10.0 sacks—just one off the league lead. The makeshift Washington offensive line, which played well last week, will have trouble with Griffen, as Ty Nsekhe or even former Viking T.J. Clemmings, try to fill in for the suspended Trent Williams. A Griffen versus Clemmings battle could be interesting to watch.
The Vikings will have to continue to get production out of the running game, as the Washington defense is ranked 16th in the league against the rush, giving up 110.5 yards per game. They are also 16th against the pass (allowing 226.4 yards per game), so it may be a pick ’em proposition for the Vikings offense, which is ranked 9th on the ground (120.0 yards per game) and 14th through the air (238.5 passing yards per game).
“Defensively they’re really good up front,” Zimmer said of Washington. “The two pass rushers, [Ryan] Kerrigan and [Preston] Smith, are handfuls. They’re physical up front. They did a really good job of pressuring Russell Wilson in that game. The thing they do is they’re the second-least penalized team in the NFL. They seem to cause all their offenses penalties quite a bit of points. So, they end up being second-and-fifteen, second-and-twenty, and first-and-twenty. Up front, they kind of got after them a little bit.”
The Vikings opened as a slight favorite on the road, which has typically been rare for this team. This is the first of five remaining road games for Minnesota, so it is an important one to get if they want to maintain their lead in the division and have a crack at home field advantage throughout the playoffs (and we do mean throughout). Expect a tough, grind it out kind of game that Zimmer enjoys, and look for the Vikings to get the win, to make their coach even happier.