The road to the postseason will be determined on the final week of the regular season for the Minnesota Vikings. But it was not supposed to be like this after a 13-3 campaign in 2017 and a date in the NFC Championship. Entering that conference title tilt with the Eagles, the NFL odds board revealed the Vikings as three-point road underdogs which illustrated the game was expected to be close. Unfortunately, the oddsmakers were wrong as Minnesota was dominated 38-7 by the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in that game and it necessitated a bit of housecleaning. Give the Vikings’ front office credit, they did not rest on their laurels but knew they needed to get that much better to bring a title back to the Twin Cities.
So, they bid adieu to Case Keenum and brought in Kirk Cousins at much greater expense. Keenum had a career year in ‘17 but he was essentially a journeyman quarterback who was expected to eventually regress to his mean. A look at the statistics from this season between both quarterbacks as they enter Week 17 and it’s hard to disagree with the Minnesota brass that what they did was anything but a solid investment in wooing Cousins into the fold.
Kirk Cousins – 29 Passing Touchdowns, 10 Interceptions, 4166 Passing Yards, 70.7 CMP%
Case Keenum – 17 Passing Touchdowns, 14 Interceptions, 3598 Passing Yards, 62.1 CMP%
To be fair, Cousins has much more to work with than Keenum as Denver is devoid of anything resembling close to the dynamic duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Cousins has also had his moments during the season where passes were thrown out of sheer desperation in circumstances that didn’t warrant it and the consequences of his actions hindered, rather than effectuated, victory. But in the end the good outweighed the bad, yet the Vikings are not the juggernaut they were last season as they are now forced to defeat the division leading Bears in what is a virtual do-or-die scenario to claim the final wild-card spot and enter the postseason.
If the Vikings are to triumph this week they will – to coin a hackneyed cliché – need to play a full 60 minutes of football and not stumble out of the gate as they did last week against the Lions. Minnesota has the talent on both sides of the ball but mental errors and a lack of focus has brought them to the brink of playoff elimination. When Adam Thielen was asked about the reasons for Minnesota’s mercurial season and regression from NFC North champs to a team on the precipice, the two-time Pro Bowler wide receiver had this to say:
“I think it’s one of those things where you can’t get anxiety, but you have to make sure that you get it figured out because in our situation we’re in, we can’t lose ballgames and a lot of it is on the points we’re putting up. If we can put points on the board as an offense, it’s going to be tough to beat us. We know that and we make sure we don’t have anxiety but we have some awareness that we’ve got to get going and we’ve got to score early.”
Perhaps Thielen’s last sentence was the most prescient in that Minnesota must take control at the beginning of the game instead of ramping up when the chips are stacked against them. The NFL odds are reflecting the Vikings as 5 ½ point home favorites over the Bears on Sunday which is chiefly due to the fact that unless Philadelphia loses or ties to Arizona, Minnesota must win in order to secure a playoff berth. But in order to defeat the Bears they must contain Khalil Mack who had a sack and a fumble recovery in Chicago’s 25-20 win over Minnesota six weeks ago. At the end of the day, this will all come down to whether or not Kirk Cousins can deliver the goods when the rubber hits the road. In Kirk we trust.