The Vikings’ 39-10 victory over the Chargers was a crucial victory as the club tries to not only stay in the NFC North race, but also clinch a postseason spot for the third time in the past five seasons.
If the 49ers beat the L.A. Rams on Saturday night, the Vikings are guaranteed a playoff spot, whether or not they beat the Packers on Monday night.
But it was fitting that two of the best performances in the Chargers game in Los Angeles came from linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, former UCLA teammates and attended high school in California, with Kendricks graduating from Herbert Hoover High School in Fresno and Barr graduating from Loyola High School in Los Angeles.
Kendricks finished the game with a team-high seven tackles and added a forced fumble. Barr had four tackles, including one for a loss late in the second quarter which was immediately followed by safety Harrison Smith’s interception.
Pro Football Focus has Kendricks graded as not only the best defensive player on the club at 90.7 this season, but the best linebacker in the NFL — which makes it shocking Kendricks wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday while his teammates Smith, running back Dalvin Cook and defensive end Danielle Hunter made the roster.
Earlier this week, coach Mike Zimmer explained what he has seen from his fifth-year linebacker.
“Eric’s played really well all year long, very instinctive,” Zimmer said. “He made a couple really nice plays in the running game to the perimeter, but probably [in] the passing game, he really showed. They tried to run — really, it was the same play the Rams ran on us a year ago — he made a good play on that one. He made a good play on the tight end on the fumble.
“He had a couple tough matchups with [Chargers wide receiver] Keenan Allen inside a couple times in the zones. I think probably that part, he’s really a good pass defender.”
Meanwhile Barr, who was a running back in high school, has 73 tackles this season and should easily eclipse his career high of 75 set in 2017. He also has produced a safety, an interception — the second of his career — and 1½ sacks.
And the good news for the Vikings is that both Barr and Kendricks are signed through 2023.
Early division losses
By nearly every measure, the Vikings have put together a better season than the Packers. If they beat them at home Monday night, the two teams will have identical 11-4 records.
But the Vikings were really hurt by their 21-16 loss at Green Bay in Week 2 and their 16-6 loss at Chicago in Week 4.
The Packers are 4-0 in NFC North play and the Vikings are 2-2, which means the only way for the Vikings to win the division and earn a playoff game at home — where they are 6-0 this season — is if Green Bay loses to the Vikings and at Detroit the following Sunday while the Vikings win out.
How do you know the Vikings are the superior team this season? The Vikings plus-119 point differential is the second-best mark in the NFC, trailing only the 49ers (plus-161), and the fourth-best mark in the NFL. The Packers, by comparison, are plus-47.
The Vikings also rank 10th in total offense (372.6 yards per game) while the Packers rank 21st (336.6 yards). The Vikings rank 14th in total defense (338.9 yards allowed per game) while the Packers rank 23rd (371.3 yards).
But those two early losses have made the stats unimportant when it comes to potentially getting a first-round bye or home-field advantage.
And when it comes to road playoff games, the Vikings haven’t won one since January 9, 2005, when they beat the Packers 31-17 at Lambeau Field. In that game, Daunte Culpepper threw for 284 yards and four touchdowns, while Brett Favre threw for 216 yards and four interceptions.
Twins track pitchers
It’s understandable if Twins fans are frustrated by the team’s lack of signing a top-flight free-agent pitcher so far this offseason, even though the team has been pushing to get a deal done and continuing to look for ways to improve the rotation outside of free agency.
The word is the Twins were aggressive in pursuing Zack Wheeler (five years, $118 million by the Phillies) and Madison Bumgarner (five years, $85 million by the Diamondbacks) and made comparable offers to those contracts, so this isn’t about the club being cheap.
So far the Twins have lost starters Kyle Gibson to Texas (three years, $30 million) and Martin Perez to Boston (one year, $6 million).
They brought back Jake Odorizzi when he accepted their qualifying offer of a one-year deal worth $17.8 million, and also re-signed Michael Pineda to a two-year, $20 million contract. On Monday, they also announced the return of reliever Sergio Romo on a one-year deal worth $4.75 million, with a $5 million team option for 2021.
While there are still plenty of free-agent starters available — such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel, Rich Hill and Alex Wood — General Manager Thad Levine said the market is making it more likely that a trade for a starter might be the best move for the Twins.
“Two years ago at the winter meetings we saw a run of relief pitchers, and this year we kind of saw a run on starting pitchers, so not too different from two years ago,” Levine said. “We’re still in conversations with a lot of agents, as well as a lot of teams. One thing we haven’t really seen heat up yet this offseason is the trade market.”
• The Gophers are waiting to find out how many players will skip the Outback Bowl to prepare for the NFL, having already lost senior linebacker Kamal Martin. But Auburn looks like their entire roster will be there after defensive tackle Derrick Brown told his team that he will play in the game despite being a lock as a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
• Zimmer on what he saw from wide receiver Adam Thielen in his first game back from a hamstring injury: “I think it wasn’t any issue with him. There was probably a couple times we could have got the ball to him a little bit more. I thought he made a really nice adjustment on one of the routes Kirk [Cousins] hit him on. He was coming to the sideline, then came back for the ball and I think we got a first down on that one. The rest of it was kind of do your job.”
• Former Gophers standout and Minnetonka grad Justin Holl is having a great season with the Maple Leafs. The defenseman has one goal and nine assists in 33 games.