Before the Vikings get back to the point where Kirk Cousins has to prove he can handle the big stage, they have to prove they can handle the next stage. The next two games could dictate the outcome of the Vikings’ season, their precarious internal peace and the direction of the franchise.
Difficult road games loom, in Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle and Los Angeles. The season-ending odyssey includes home games against Green Bay and Chicago. Those six games will test Cousins’ nerves only if they’re still meaningful when they arrive, and they will be meaningful only if the Vikings can survive the next two weeks.
Sunday, the Vikings face Philadelphia in the Eagles’ first trip to U.S. Bank Stadium since they tortured Vikings fans in the Super Bowl. The following week, the Vikings travel to Detroit. These are the kinds of games good teams win, and that lesser teams lose while fretting over internal conflict.
If the Vikings lose these two, they will be 3-4 overall, 0-3 in the division and 2-4 in the conference. With presumed victories against Washington and Denver remaining, they would need to find seven more victories to reach the usual playoff-qualifying benchmark of 10. Add a victory over Detroit at home — which shouldn’t be presumed but would become a necessity — and the Vikings would have go to 4-2 against the Chiefs, Cowboys, Seahawks, Chargers, Packers and Bears to reach 10.
Which would require Cousins beating a lot of good teams in a lot of difficult circumstances, with immense pressure bearing down upon him.
Which is possible. But I wouldn’t want my job to depend on it, and the jobs of Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer and a lot of assistant coaches likely will.
The Vikings are certainly talented enough to win their next two games, and if they do they’ll be 5-2 with plenty of margin for error for the second half of the season. They would still have to win a few tough games, but they wouldn’t have to put together a run of brilliance against top teams that would be uncharacteristic of their recent history.
Remember, their remarkable success with Case Keenum in 2017 was in part because a superior defense beat bad quarterbacks. Here are the quarterbacks who played the bulk of the snaps against Keenum in Vikings victories that season: Jameis Winston in his bad phase, rookie Mitch Trubisky, Brett Hundley, Joe Flacco, Deshaun Kizer, Cousins(!), second-year Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton, Hundley and Trubisky.
If the Vikings lose their next two games, they will have to make up ground against such quarterbacks as Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. That’s a bit scary, given that they’ve already lost a game to Chase Daniel.
If the Vikings win one or two of the next games and perform well offensively, they can remain on track for a playoff berth. But their recent locker room dissonance means they not only can’t afford losses, but they also can’t afford the wrong kinds of victories.
As much as local TV reporters try to tell you that the Vikings are one big, happy family, that is more a reflection of our dear TV reporters’ Pollyanna tendencies than any discernible reality.
Since the last week of last season, Adam Thielen and Cousins have argued publicly, Stefon Diggs has skipped offseason workouts and was fined $200,000, and Vikings employees have fretted about Cousins’ tendency to “overthink everything,” according to one source.
Sunday, after the Vikings’ wart-obscuring victory over the New York Giants, Diggs was asked about his contentedness. “Yeah, I want to be in Minnesota,” he said.
After saying that he smiled, and winked.
On Wednesday, in his group interview, Diggs was asked about his health and faked a cough, a nod to the bogus excuse initially offered when he missed work last week.
Diggs’ act might be cute when his team is winning, but it will be deadly if the Vikings lose winnable games.
The next two weeks will set the stage, or tear it down.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org