Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we'll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
Mike Zimmer will address reporters for the final time in the 2020 season on Tuesday morning, but his last remarks on Sunday in Detroit sounded a bit like a closing argument. He discussed the effect of injuries to players like Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks for the second game in a row, also alluding to Michael Pierce's decision to opt out because of COVID-19 concerns, and then said this:
"With the turnover that we had, the injuries that we had on defense, we just weren't good enough. We fought like crazy and 7-9 is not great, but under the circumstances and everything that went on, maybe it's the best we could have done."
To be back in the playoffs next weekend, the Vikings wouldn't have needed to do too much better. The NFL's decision to add a seventh playoff team to each conference meant that the Bears clinched a postseason spot on Sunday even as they lost to the Packers to finish 8-8. It also meant that if the Vikings had beaten the Bears at home in Week 15, they, not Chicago, would be preparing for a game in New Orleans this weekend. Even with a loss to the Bears, another win somewhere along the way would have put them in ahead of Chicago, since the Vikings would have won a tiebreaker with a better division record (4-2) than the 2-4 mark the Bears had.
There'll be time for a more thorough analysis of the Vikings' injuries later this offseason, but for now, it's worth pointing this out: While they dealt with more injuries in 2020 than in most years under Zimmer (other than perhaps 2016), they've enjoyed relatively good health each time they've gone to the playoffs with him.
In 2019, the Vikings were the healthiest team in the league, according to Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost metric. Adam Thielen's hamstring injury — and various setbacks in his recovery — caused him to miss most of seven games, and the Vikings dealt with a handful of nagging injuries in the secondary, but only lost 25.6 adjusted games for the season. Even with injuries to Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook, they were 11th in 2017, and they finished 12th in 2015.
In other words, they've never taken the road to playoff success traveled by the team that beat them in the divisional round last year: San Francisco, which lost the sixth-most games to injury (95.8) before going to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers were one of 19 teams to reach the playoffs from 2010-19 while ranking in the top quartile of the league in terms of Adjusted Games Lost. Twice as many teams — including the 2019 Vikings — ranked among the top quartile of the league's healthiest clubs while making the playoffs.
Football Outsiders typically releases its AGL statistics in the spring, but in Man-Games Lost, which tracks injuries on a week-to-week basis, only five teams had been more impacted by injuries than the Vikings heading into Week 17. Still, there was a road available to them to make an expanded playoff field this year, and an 8-8 record would have put them in.
Zimmer said on Sunday, "Lots of times when you get injured players, it depends on who the injured players are," and that's perhaps the area where his best team — the 2017 group — stood out the most. While those Vikings lost Bradford after Week 1 and Cook after Week 4, they happened to hit on capable replacements for both players, having signed Latavius Murray in the offseason to work with Jerick McKinnon before drafting Cook and hitting the jackpot on a one-year deal with Case Keenum after nearly cutting him at the end of the preseason. To that extent, the Vikings were able to manage their injuries because they had a solid Plan B; the lack of secondary options in 2020 might explain where things went wrong.
Because the Vikings are pressed so tightly against the salary cap with top-end contracts, they've had to stock the rest of their roster with draft picks or low-salary players. Mid-level veterans like a Murray or a Tom Johnson aren't on the roster, and especially in a year where the Vikings were attempting to remake their defense on the fly, the loss of an elite pass rusher like Hunter stripped away much of the cover they had for their young secondary.
In Weeks 14 to 16, when the Vikings were fighting for their playoff lives against three teams who will play next weekend (the Buccaneers, Bears and Saints), they had just one sack, when linebacker Todd Davis chased down Mitchell Trubisky in Week 15.
In some sense, the Vikings' injuries might show just how little margin for error they'd left themselves this year. As Kirk Cousins talked about Sunday, his biggest takeaway from the season is how many games can come down to one play. Without many reliable alternatives to make them, these Vikings were exposed once their stars went down.
It was their choice to try and win without more depth on defense. They were hinting at their decision to get younger as soon as last January, and stuck with it even as a pandemic raised the notion teams might lose their offseason practice time. And if their young players develop like the Vikings contend they will, everything could be fine a year from now. But while more teams than expected have overcome injuries to get to the postseason, the 2020 Vikings weren't set up to handle it.
"Obviously I think we got hit with the injury bug more than other teams. But the greats, regardless of what the situation is, know how to adapt," defensive end Ifeadi Odengibo said. "At the End of the day if you don't have the ideal guys in there, you make do with what you've got. It's an adjustment game. ... That's what separates championship teams. Like 'Hey. This guy went down earlier this year.' I guess the strongest teams have the most depth. Obviously you can go back like, 'This went wrong or that went wrong or this went wrong and that went wrong.' At the end of the day there are still plenty of teams that still got the job done."
Here's a look at one more trend to watch after Sunday's 37-35 win over the Lions:
How the Vikings address their offensive line: Cousins played every offensive snap this season, as did center Garrett Bradbury and guard Dakota Dozier. Brian O'Neill missed only 13, and Riley Reiff hadn't missed a snap before Week 17. But given Dozier's struggles all season — he was flagged for holding on the second play Sunday when he also clipped Cousins' foot — the Vikings might need to look for another option there. They could look for more depth with a group that stayed remarkably healthy all season at a position that's typically subject to injuries.
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Alexander Mattison: His usage had dropped off after the Vikings' bye week, as the team decided to lean heavily on Cook in an attempt to get back in the playoff race. That effectively confined Mattison to spot duty after a Week 6 start against the Falcons (and his fateful fourth-and-1 carry in Seattle) while Cook was out with his ankle injury. But when he got a chance to start on Sunday, he made the most of it, gaining 95 yards on the ground with a number of nice downhill runs and finishing his 28-yard receiving touchdown with a nifty cut to slip past a defender for the final few yards. It was a strong performance for Mattison to end a year where his complementary role was reduced.
Justin Jefferson: He finished his rookie year with exactly 1,400 receiving yards, posting 133 to break both Randy Moss' team record and Anquan Boldin's Super Bowl-era NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie. Jefferson didn't score a touchdown in his final game of the regular season, but he avoided preventing one at the end of the first half, when he stepped out of Chad Beebe's way at the last second after Beebe broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. "I looked back and saw the ball thrown and then I got hit somehow by the safety. all of a sudden I see Beebe running down the sideline," Jefferson said. "I'm definitely happy that he made that play, but I was so confused, I didn't know what was going on."
TWO AREAS OF CONCERN
Anthony Harris' future: There's little doubt the Vikings' instability at corner affected things for safeties Harris and Harrison Smith, but as Harris heads into free agency after a season on the franchise tag, it's worth wondering what his future could hold. He had a pass breakup to save a touchdown on Sunday, but got caught looking in the backfield on Marvin Jones' 43-yard touchdown, and took a poor angle when De'Andre Swift beat him to the perimeter on a fourth-quarter run. If the Vikings decide to move on from Harris, they'll need to find a new safety next to Smith; if they decide to stick with a safety tandem they've viewed as an asset, they'll have to figure out how to fit a Harris deal into a tight salary cap picture and determine whether he can rebound quickly from a subpar year.
Lack of QB pressure: This has been a struggle all season with Danielle Hunter out, but the Vikings were unable to affect Matthew Stafford for much of the day as the quarterback returned from multiple injuries to play in Week 17. According to Pro Football Focus, they pressured him on just eight of his 34 dropbacks, as Hercules Mata'afa recorded their only sack. The Vikings traded Yannick Ngakoue to Baltimore in October once they'd determined he wasn't a great fit for how they wanted to play, but he finished the year as the team leader in sacks.
ONE BIG QUESTION
How much different will the Vikings look in 2021? Big changes at the top aren't expected — the Wilfs gave Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman new deals through 2023 before the season, and it seems unlikely they'll press the reset button after a year when the Vikings subtly shifted the public narrative from hopes of contention to a focus on rebuilding. They'll point to great seasons from Jefferson and Dalvin Cook, as well as a productive finish to follow a disastrous start from Cousins, and bet on the improvement of their young defenders in Year 2.
But it'll take some significant growth from players like Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler to put the secondary in good shape for 2021, and the Vikings are still unlikely to make major free agency moves given their salary cap constraints. The hope figures (again) to be for stability on offense and a quick jump on defense with the return of injured players like Hunter, Kendricks and Barr (assuming his contract keeps him here).
The 2021 schedule includes matchups with the entire AFC North and NFC West, which produced five playoff teams between them, so the Vikings might need to improve quickly if they are to suggest this year was a blip. Zimmer has made the playoffs in every odd-numbered year he's been the head coach (2015, 2017 and 2019), so maybe next year will be better.