Matthew Coller is a published author and football writer who covers the Vikings. He also writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, in addition to hosting a livestream on the Bring Me The News YouTube and Facebook pages every Tuesday. You can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
It’s been a heavy year for the Minnesota Vikings.
During training camp, the head coach and quarterback were at odds over COVID vaccinations.
Shortly after that, the Vikings released former first-round cornerback Jeff Gladney when he was indicted for physically assaulting a woman.
That was before a single regular season play was run. The Vikings opened the season with two losses on the final play. A few weeks later, they lost superstar pass rusher Danielle Hunter for the season to a torn pectoral muscle. Harrison Smith also missed two weeks due to COVID.
Prior to heading West to face the Los Angeles Chargers, a lawsuit surfaced from a woman accusing Dalvin Cook of domestic abuse. The suit included disturbing pictures of the woman’s battered face.
This week, Everson Griffen’s mental health crisis left everyone within TCO Performance Center shaken and worried whether their leader was safe.
Thankfully, Griffen was able to get the help he needs. But from a football perspective, the Vikings are left without one of their best players. Not to mention defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson is on the COVID list.
And everything has lined up for the Vikings to play one of the most physically dominating teams in the NFL in San Francisco.
Every team in the league could talk about going through difficult times because of injuries or personal matters but the Vikings have been hit particularly hard this year.
Still they sit in the driver’s seat to make the playoffs. According to the analytics website 538, they have greater than 80% chance to make the postseason if they beat the 49ers on Sunday.
Over the last two weeks, they have laid out the model for overcoming the obstacles in their way — whether it be injuries or anxiousness related to off-field issues: An explosive passing game cures all ills.
This has long been the case in the NFL. Peyton Manning’s teams, for example, had different players and coaches throughout his tenure and some years were more injury-plagued than others but he only won fewer than 10 games one time between 1999 and 2014.
We have seen teams reach the Super Bowl with struggling defenses, like the 2016 Atlanta Falcons, who ranked 27th in points allowed. The 2018 Chiefs similarly reached the AFC Championship game with an abysmal defense.
You might be saying: Those are elite quarterbacks! That’s true but Cousins has been playing like that this year. He’s ranked as a top PFF QB and has the lowest interception rate of his career. He’s led game-winning drives like John Elway and been as accurate as Drew Brees.
Whether it lasts forever, who knows, but for the 2021 season so far, he’s been a top QB.
Against Los Angeles and Green Bay, the Vikings finally treated him that way and threw their run-first mentality to the breeze and pushed the ball down the field to Justin Jefferson in a way that would make Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss proud.
Cousins was under pressure from the Packers rush but that mattered nil when he flung the ball up for Jefferson, who PFF ranks as one of the NFL’s top receivers against man coverage.
The Vikings presently rank third in the NFL in Expected Points Added through the air, by far their highest rank of the Zimmer era. While there have been stretches of ineffectiveness, they have shown a capability to be special offensively. Again, that’s something we’ve rarely said about a Zimmer offense. Usually it’s been about just doing enough on offense to allow the defense to close the door.
When they had top five defenses year after year, that was fine. Teddy and Case game- managed their way to a lot of wins behind Zimmer’s stacked defenses. But the defense they’ll run out against the 49ers has four backups playing along the defensive line and a patchwork secondary that let Aaron Rodgers go full legend in a second-half comeback last week.
If this were the Hollywood version of the 2021 Vikings season, the old grizzled coach would walk onto an empty football field with his quarterback and say something like, “this is your time, this is why we brought you here.”
Well, Zimmer has kind of been saying that and Cousins has been kind of disagreeing. Even this week those two contradicted each other in comments about being aggressive with the football.
There’s no more time for debating who wants who to throw how deep.
The season rests on Cousins’s shoulders and he has the weapons to turn a season with troubled waters into one that Vikings fans remember forever.
The schedule helps with that, too. Did you watch the magical Bears-Lions Thanksgiving game?
Well, the Vikings have three games against those two teams down the stretch.
They’ll need some big wins though. The biggest of which comes this Sunday.
If they can throw all over the 49ers the way they did the Chargers and Packers, it will be time to believe the Vikings are a different team this year than the ones that have fallen short in key games like this in years past.