There will be some things, in the final installment of the trilogy against the Seahawks that Vikings fans have come to loathe, that will be the same as the first two installments: The Vikings, for the third time in three years, will play a prime-time game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, testing their ability to handle a nighttime matchup after a long flight west and two-hour time zone change. They will face one of the NFL’s best teams of the past decade, undefeated so far this year and emboldened perhaps more than ever to turn their quarterback loose.
Instead of using silent counts in a stadium filled with the Seahawks’ raucous fans, though, the Vikings will be able to operate their offense in an environment placid enough that quarterback Kirk Cousins will focus more on not talking too loudly than worrying about being heard. They will deliver final meetings and motivational speeches virtually, rather than gathering in a hotel ballroom the night before the game. And once again, they will have spent part of their week detailing protocols to keep COVID-19 from breaching their practice facility.
Sunday night will be the Vikings’ first road game in an empty stadium, after playing in front of 2,500 fans in Indianapolis and 12,271 in Houston. Their third straight road game in Seattle — following a shambolic performance in 2018 and a close loss last year — will have a decidedly different feel without the “12s” in the stands. Instead of the Vikings’ third road game in four weeks being played in a menacing environment, it will happen after the NFL spent the week redoubling its efforts to keep its season on track.
Commissioner Roger Goodell outlined a series of stricter COVID-19 prevention measures this week in memos to teams. The Titans’ outbreak, which became public after their Sept. 27 game against the Vikings, has reached 22 positive cases.
The Patriots now have two star players, quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, on their COVID reserve list and have shut down their facility for two days.
Teams can now be forced to forfeit games or surrender draft picks for protocol violations that force the league to reschedule games, after the Titans-Steelers game last Sunday was postponed and two more positive cases Wednesday put this week’s Titans-Bills game in jeopardy.
The league also required five days’ worth of negative PCR tests, plus a negative point-of-care test on Day 6, before permitting free agents or players who have to leave a team to enter club facilities.
Clubs must provide 30 days’ worth of video surveillance footage to help the NFL monitor adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing protocols. Players cannot gather in groups of three or more outside the practice facility or during team travel.
Teams must take five buses to road games instead of two, with no bus at more than 50% capacity. After the Titans’ outbreak forced the Vikings to close their facility for two days last week, they took 10 buses to their game against the Texans on Sunday, according to Fox’s broadcast of the game.
The Vikings became the first team to take point-of-care tests before the game in Houston, and while coach Mike Zimmer said Sunday they had a false positive and three inconclusive results, they’ve yet to have a positive case of COVID-19 during the 2020 season.
Still, they’ll likely spend the rest of the year operating under requirements that have already changed and could do so again.
“Today in a team meeting, we went over all of the new protocols,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Especially since it was Tennessee and happened against us, I think they understand the significance of all of the different things that can happen.
“You look at the Pentagon, they’ve got it, the White House has got it, the NFL has got it. It’s a crazy time and like I told them today, Eric Sugarman, our [athletic] trainer [and infection control officer], is just trying to keep them safe. I’m trying to keep them safe and their family safe and do the best job we can to fight this virus and stay as a team.”
The Vikings’ road routine now requires players to stay in the team hotel upon arrival, eat in small groups and conduct things like Saturday night meetings and chapel sessions virtually.
Last week, Zimmer said, he conducted his final team meeting of the week on Friday so he could hold it in person, rather than needing to deliver his message to an 0-3 team virtually. One night last week, he said, he got a text at 9 p.m. telling him he needed to change his practice schedule for the following day.
“This whole year has been, I guess the best way to say it is, about adaptation,” Zimmer said.
He added quarterback Sean Mannion told him recently, “I’d hate to be a head coach in this era right now because of trying to manage all of the things and different protocols that you have to do.”
“They come out with different things every week, changing schedules and so on and so forth,” Zimmer said. “It’s been difficult, but we’re not going to cry about it.”
The silver lining, at least this week, is that as the Vikings try to beat quarterback Russell Wilson for the first time in seven tries, they won’t have to deal with Seattle’s sonic advantage.
“The whole experience has just been evened out throughout the league,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “When we’ve gone on the road, there’s been no factor at all, so it’s obvious that the factors we’ve had, just with crowd noise and their involvement and the craziness that it is to play here is gone. So it’s down to more pure football, and it’s not at all about the venue.”
That there are football games at all, quarterback Kirk Cousins said, means “there are plenty of sacrifices that we’re happy to make, as long as it ensures we can have a football season.”
And after three straight trips to Seattle, Vikings fans will be happy to know the 2021 game between the two teams — as well as a potential 2022 matchup — would be at U.S. Bank Stadium.