In sports vernacular, important games often are assigned a certain label in order to remove ambiguity, if any exists, that THIS IS A REALLY BIG GAME!
We call them must-wins. Impossible to top “must” in significance and edict, right?
In truth, only elimination games in playoffs or at the end of the regular season fit that literal interpretation.
And yet, in some cases, the word “must” could be replaced with “need in the worst possible way” and still capture the essence of a team’s plight.
Minneapolis will host two such games this weekend. The Gophers and Vikings don’t face must-wins by strict definition, but they need victories in the worst possible way, albeit for different reasons.
The Gophers need to show that they can defeat a credible opponent; the Vikings need to show that they can win again, period.
The Twin Cities’ two major football teams will play a few miles apart on consecutive days this weekend, and when their circumstances are conjoined, there won’t be enough fingernails to chew on considering what a loss would mean for each squad.
Let’s start with the Gophers, who fell to 7-3 after a loss at Nebraska and face Northwestern in the home finale.
The Gophers have a 4-3 record in the Big Ten. They have won four games against inferior opponents, three of whom — Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue — have three conference victories combined and rank among the worst teams in major college football.
The three losses on the Gophers’ résumé have come against quality opponents. Not superpowers, but good, respectable teams.
The Gophers were handed their most favorable schedule in years thanks to a soft middle portion. On paper, an 8-4 record felt like a minimum requirement, the absolute floor.
A loss Saturday to solid but unspectacular Northwestern would leave the Gophers in a precarious spot of needing to win at Wisconsin to salvage an acceptable finish.
Anything less than 8-4 would put new athletic director Mark Coyle in an interesting position of deciding how to proceed with head coach Tracy Claeys, who has only two seasons remaining on his contract.
Some are quick to note that all three losses have been by a touchdown or less, a sign of being competitive. That’s true.
Of course, the Gophers also needed a last-second field goal against Rutgers, and Purdue had the ball late in the fourth quarter trailing by 6. Those outcomes could have been different, too. That argument works both ways.
A win Saturday would qualify as their best of the season.
“We’ve got a chance to finish up this season, and we haven’t had nine wins yet since we’ve been here,” Claeys said.
The Vikings looked like they would blow past the nine-win mark after starting 5-0. Now nine wins appears daunting.
Like dog years, a loss in the NFL feels multiplied. Four consecutive losses might as well be an eternity.
If they lose again Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals, conversation will focus on whether the Vikings can make the playoffs, a laughable topic one month ago.
“Right now there’s obviously pressure on everybody,” Mike Zimmer said.
Their free-fall has been remarkable. They can’t run the ball and their depleted offensive line is hanging by a thread, leaving the offense so one-dimensional that pages 1-25 in Pat Shurmur’s playbook involve some variation of throwing short passes to Stefon Diggs.
Also troublesome is the fact Zimmer’s defense suddenly looks pedestrian and lacking its usual spit-in-their-face bravado. There’s also that little matter involving a kicker that can’t be trusted.
“It’s not a place to panic,” veteran cornerback Terence Newman said, “but we understand we do have some problems that need to get corrected.”
That’s the rub in regards to their offense, specifically the offensive line. Is it even fixable at this point? Injuries have decimated the line to the point that Rick Spielman might need to take out a Help Wanted ad.
And there’s still basically half a season left.
One win would help calm nerves. A must-win Sunday? No, not exactly. But the needle rests just a notch below.
“If we get a win,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, “we’ll feel like, ‘Whew, it’s off us now.’ ”
The Gophers know the feeling.