Coller: Vikings staring down chance to prove they belong

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

Mike Zimmer opened his postgame press conference following the Minnesota Vikings’ win over the Jacksonville Jaguars by saying he had “mixed feelings about the win.” Translation: He knew they deserved to lose.

The Vikings entered as 9.5 point favorites over the 1-10 Jaguars but played down to their competition. They produced just six points by halftime and then threw a pick-six on the first play out of the locker room. The comedy of errors continued throughout. Dalvin Cook fumbled at the 1-yard line with a chance to close out the lowly Jags, the Vikings’ defense allowed a game-tying drive to third-string QB Mike Glennon, Dan Bailey missed a game-winning field goal and Cousins took a sack in overtime that opened the door for Jacksonville to win.

Had it not been for Glennon’s three turnovers, the Vikings would have walked out of U.S. Bank Stadium with arguably the worst loss of Zimmer’s head coaching career.

“We’re going to have to play better,” Zimmer said. “That’s just the bottom line. We’ve got to play better than what we’re playing. Can’t turn the ball (over). What did we have, two turnovers for touchdowns last week? We had a turnover for a touchdown this week, fumbled the ball on the 1-yard line. We can’t do those things and continue to win football games. It’s a credit to their heart right now that they’re winning games by making these kind of mistakes.”

The trend goes beyond the Jacksonville game. The Vikings gave up back-to-back defensive touchdowns that nearly cost them against Carolina. They lost to Dallas after failing to stop an Andy Dalton game-winning drive and nearly allowed Chicago to come back in dramatic fashion.

Over the final quarter of the season, these types of mistakes won’t fly. According to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, the Vikings have the hardest remaining schedule of any team battling for playoff position. That could explain why Football Outsiders is still giving them only a 28% chance to make the postseason despite the Vikings holding down the seventh seed currently and holding some key tie breakers at the moment.

It’s common sense that the Vikings won’t be allowed to fumble punts, miss extra points and literally hand the ball to the other team for a touchdown when they face Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Bucs or the New Orleans Saints. They might not even get away with it twice against Chicago and Detroit may have a little more fight in them now that Matt Patricia was given the well-earned axe.

The fact that they have a tough final quarter of the season could be interpreted as a classic Vikings-y bad break. But it’s really a blessing in disguise. By the end of the next four games, we will know exactly where this team stands going forward.

Think about the beginning of the year. The Vikings get smacked by two good teams in Green Bay and Indy. But they were running out first-year players with no preseason experience and Justin Jefferson wasn’t part of the mix yet.

They followed up with close losses to decent Seattle and Tennessee teams. Maybe that suggested they weren’t quite as bad as their record but then they fell apart against Atlanta, which gave us the impression they were a mess.

Coming out of the bye week, everything went their way. Aaron Rodgers had to battle with 40 mph winds. Matthew Stafford wasn’t allowed to practice for the entire week leading up to the game against Detroit. Nick Foles. Carolina’s kicker missed a game-winner. Jacksonville threw a pick in OT.

So are the Vikings closer to the 1-5 team or the 5-1 team? Things have been so wonky in their early losses and recent wins that it’s tough to say for sure.

But we’re going to find out. The combined record of teams they face down the stretch is 27-21. They’ll play good quarterbacks in three of the four games and good defenses in three of the four games. And all four opponents will be fighting for either playoff position or a shot at ruining a division rival’s chances. Three of the games are on the road and the home game will be against a team that eliminated them from the playoffs in 2018.

“I know they understand and I continue to preach it -- that we have to stop doing these things, it's going to cost us games down the road,” Zimmer said. “If we stop doing those things and we continue to play with the heart and fight and things we have, we have a chance to play.”

In the Vikings’ ideal world, they split or win three-of-four in order to lock down a playoff spot and in turn feel very good about their overall direction. Even with a helpful schedule, a turnaround from 1-5 to the postseason points in a positive direction for the organization overall, especially with the 2020 rookie class playing such a key role would all point toward a bright future.

However, if they fall apart and miss the postseason when the NFC seas have parted to give them a chance at the No. 7 seed, that means plenty will have gone wrong. It likely would take Cousins regressing or teams slowing down Jefferson or the defense getting exposed for having many holes to fix.

If they miss the postseason, it will feel like the Vikings have a ton of work to do (and not a whole lot of cap space to do it with). It will mean questions about drafting a quarterback. Regrets over trading away their second-round pick and questions about whether the defense can be turned around by next year.

The team has already proven it will fight for Zimmer. But can the 2020 Vikings show they are more than just a scrappy attitude and a weak schedule? We’ll start to find out this week in Tampa Bay.

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