The Minnesota Vikings may be reeling after last week's loss to Detroit but they have no time to feel sorry for themselves. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in town on Thursday night in a game featuring two teams battling for their playoff lives.
At 5-7, the Vikings need to find a way to come away with a win. But after last week's performance, it's fair to wonder if the current regime has run its course. Here's what you can expect when the Vikings take the stage on Thursday Night Football.
1. Defensive reinforcements
Mike Zimmer's defense has been battered over the past couple of weeks due to a barrage of injuries. Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Patrick Peterson were three key players that sat out the loss to Detroit but all figure to be back against the Steelers.
But there are still some issues that could help Pittsburgh's 17th ranked offense. The defensive line still doesn't have a consistent pass-rusher in the absence of Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen and the run defense will be tested against an offense that ranks 29th in yards per rushing attempt but features bruising rookie Najee Harris.
With Ben Roethlisberger past his prime, the Steelers aren't an imposing challenge on paper but neither were the Lions, who rank 29th in points scored and still put 29 on the Vikings. The returning veterans should help but this won't be a walk in the park.
2. Justin Jefferson's national TV takeover
At this point in the season, the Vikings should find every way possible to get the ball to their superstars. With Dalvin Cook questionable and Adam Thielen ruled out, Jefferson is the last man standing entering Thursday's game.
Defenses will key in on Jefferson but that shouldn't matter. He was targeted just twice before the final drive in the first half last Sunday but still wound up with 11 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets. Jefferson is going to get his but the question for the Vikings is how long they'll wait to get him the ball.
Everything the Vikings do on Thursday should have a sense of urgency. If they're serious about making a run, throwing the ball to Jefferson early and often should be their primary plan of attack.
3. The offensive line putting Kirk Cousins under pressure
The Vikings' offensive line woes took a bizarre turn last week when they decided to shuffle the unit the night before losing to Detroit. The line actually did an admirable job, allowing Cousins to be pressured on 26.7 percent of his dropbacks, but it will have a tougher task against Pittsburgh.
T.J. Watt leads the NFL with 16 sacks and he'll likely go up against Oli Udoh, who was inexplicably moved to left tackle and allowed four pressures and committed two penalties in the loss to the Lions.
The interior of the offensive line may be a bigger issue. Cameron Heyward is seventh among interior defensive linemen with 43 pressures on the season. His assignment will be to go against the trio of Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury and Mason Cole.
The most comparable opponent here would be Kenny Clark, who collected five pressures on 32 pass rushing snaps when the Vikings played the Packers in Week 11. Although Bradbury was benched for that game, there could be a similar result that puts Cousins under duress
Note: Christian Darrisaw, Minnesota's rookie left tackle, has been ruled out.
4. A very angry crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium
Throughout the season, the Vikings have been trying to convince their fan base that they're a legitimate contender. When they climbed back to 5-5 after beating the Packers, there was a thought that they could make a run in the pillow fight for the final playoff spot in the NFC.
The problem is that losing teams don't have their quarterback line up under the guard on a critical fourth down. They also don't lose to a Lions team that hadn't won a game in 364 days. And they really don't lose to a quarterback named Cooper Rush.
The Detroit loss was a major blow to the self-esteem of Vikings fans, who are now like the Madden player that simulates to the end of the season because when they're not on track to make the playoffs.
But fans don't have the option of turning their Xbox off. If the Vikings get off to a slow start, it could turn into a rowdy situation at U.S. Bank Stadium for fans that want a change. That decision could already be made after last week's loss but it's possible those jeers could grow a little louder.
5. A narrow loss to a better team
That situation could be imminent as this is a team that always seems to do the wrong thing. They play back when they should blitz. They go for it on fourth down when they shouldn't. They kick field goals when they should score touchdowns. They check down to C.J. Ham when they should throw to Jefferson.
These flaws should rise to the top when they host a Steelers team that is led by a coach that once got to .500 with Duck Hodges as his quarterback. Mike Tomlin will have his team ready to go and it is unlikely he'll make the same mistake that a Vikings team that tenses up when seeing Cover 2 will.
The Vikings could pull off the victory at home, but on short rest and still banged up against a good Steelers defense, it's going to be difficult.
Prediction: Steelers 21, Vikings 18