At 7-7, the Minnesota Vikings control their own destiny for the final playoff spot in the NFC. Standing in their way are the Los Angeles Rams who have won their past three games and are making a push toward a division title.
Like many things this season, it won't be easy. But here are five things you can count on when the Vikings hit the field in another must-win game.
1. Alexander Mattison replacing Dalvin Cook's production
The Vikings got bad news on Thursday when Dalvin Cook was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list. While the Vikings have not confirmed his vaccination status, he has followed the protocols for unvaccinated players this season, meaning he will not be available against the Rams.
Cook is a big loss but the Vikings have a capable backup in Alexander Mattison. In four starts dating back to last season, Mattison has averaged 102.5 yards per game and has four total touchdowns. More importantly, the Vikings are 3-1 in those starts, which bodes well to get some production on the ground.
The Rams are a tough matchup, ranking fourth in Football Outsiders DVOA metric against the run. But if Mattison can make the running game a threat, it should open up things for the passing attack.
2. Kirk Cousins playing in pain
Like Clubber Lang talking smack to reporters in Rocky III, it's fair to predict pain in Sunday's matchup. For Kirk Cousins, that will be taken to another level as he'll reportedly be playing with a cracked rib.
On top of that, the Vikings have to deal with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The All-Pro is two weeks removed from collecting 14 pressures against the Arizona Cardinals. To make matters worse, Mason Cole was placed on injured reserve with an elbow injury, meaning Oli Udoh will return to the starting lineup.
With an NFL-high 15 penalties this season, there's a good chance Udoh will be giving out free hugs for Christmas. But for a quarterback that prefers everything go to plan, Cousins's situation is less than ideal.
3. Justin Jefferson vs. Jalen Ramsey stealing the show
If you like a good wide receiver/cornerback matchup, Sunday will be a good day to break out the popcorn.
Justin Jefferson will get the toughest task of his NFL career as he'll go up against Jalen Ramsey. While Jefferson ranks third in Pro Football Focus's receiver grades, Ramsey grades as the second-best cover corner and hasn't allowed more than 75 yards in a game this season.
Any offensive game plan should start with getting Jefferson the ball but we've seen the offense struggle when it faces a combination of pressure and coverage. Perhaps the Rams won't double Jefferson and leave Ramsey in a one-on-one matchup. But with Adam Thielen out, the Vikings need Jefferson to win this battle.
4. Matthew Stafford's revenge against Mike Zimmer
Since his arrival in 2014, Mike Zimmer has had his way against Matthew Stafford. In 13 games, the Vikings have gone 8-5 against Stafford with wins in their past six meetings. Zimmer has also found a way to pressure him, averaging 3.1 sacks per game in that stretch.
But some of that may have had to do with Stafford's former team. While Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions served as a security blanket for the Zimmer regime, Stafford is thriving under Sean McVay, who has given him all of the weapons he can handle.
That includes Cooper Kupp, who is on pace to break Calvin Johnson's record for receiving yards in a season. The Rams also doubled down by adding Odell Beckham Jr., who has three touchdowns in five games with the Rams.
With both stars going up against Mackensie Alexander (87th of 88 qualifying corners per PFF) and Patrick Peterson (67th), Stafford could finally have the supporting cast to foil Mike Zimmer's defense.
5. The Vikings will have their annual December disaster
Over the past couple of seasons, the Vikings have had a December game that has ripped the hearts out of Vikings fans.
In 2016, it was a no-show against the Indianapolis Colts followed by the defensive backs going rouge in Green Bay. In 2018, it was a beating by the Chicago Bears. In 2019, the Packers obliterated the Vikings on Monday Night Football. In 2020, Alvin Kamara played The Grinch by scoring six touchdowns on Christmas Day.
It may be the day after Christmas but the Vikings are poised to drop some coal in your stockings. They are depleted due to injuries and COVID and the matchups indicate a thorough beating at the hands of a true playoff contender.
The Vikings' playoff hopes won't completely die with a loss but this doesn't have the look of a playoff team. Eventually, the bottom will fall out and it could very well happen on Sunday afternoon.