Two teams sharing Super Bowl dreams are meeting at a crossroads Thursday night.
The highflying Los Angeles Rams are one of three unbeaten NFL teams, coming off a remarkable turnaround season under 32-year-old coach Sean McVay.
The Vikings straggle into the monstrous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum coming off one of the worst, and most unexpected, losses in franchise history.
A week ago, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer tinkered with their team by making three roster moves after an unsatisfying tie at Lambeau Field. This week’s course, after a 21-point home loss to the Bills, has been a little more unpredictable.
The short week of preparation was jolted with the absence of defensive end Everson Griffen; the 30-year-old team captain was undergoing a mental health evaluation after police were twice notified Saturday of erratic behavior.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins might not have his best lineup on offense. Two starters, running back Dalvin Cook (hamstring) and left tackle Riley Reiff (foot), are questionable.
“We’ll have to move some pieces around, obviously,” Zimmer said. “But we’ve always tried to make this a team where we can play, count on one another, and play together. Injuries happen, you lose guys. We can’t be ‘woe is me,’ you got to go out and perform.”
Vikings players denied Griffen’s absence affected their poor play as 17-point favorites against the Bills after news spread through the locker room about Saturday’s incidents.
Zimmer maintains the team’s focus remains.
“We have been really disappointed in how we played last week,” Zimmer said. “That is the main thing. I know talking about Everson, our guys really care and love Everson. But our guys understand we all have a job to do. I haven’t noticed — we’ve only had one day, it’s hard — but they seem to be, other than disappointed about the loss, they haven’t seemed to be down or anything like that.”
It would be a sharp right turn typical of the unpredictable NFL if the Vikings (1-1-1) were to rebound and beat the Rams (3-0). The Vikings flew to Los Angeles on Tuesday, a day early, because the 1,600-mile trip is the third longest made by an NFL team since Thursday night football was expanded to include 13 games in 2012.
Looking to rebound
When the Vikings arrive at the Coliseum, waiting will be three of the league’s top offensive performers — quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and receiver Brandin Cooks — and a stingy L.A. defense fronted by a pair of first-team All-Pro defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. The Vikings will catch one break — the Rams’ starting cornerbacks are injured. Aqib Talib (ankle) is out and Marcus Peters (calf) is questionable.
On the Rams’ sideline is the NFL’s wunderkind. McVay became the NFL Coach of the Year after turning around a league-worst scoring offense to the best in his first season as head coach.
One of the only teams to stop the Rams last season was the Vikings, in Minnesota’s 24-7 home victory in November. So the Vikings’ embarrassing loss to the Bills isn’t necessarily a precursor to Thursday night, McVay said.
“You don’t have to look too much further other than our game against them last year,” McVay said. “By no means do I think that game or the score is representative of the caliber of defense, the caliber of players or the caliber of coaching.”
The Rams have looked even better this season, outscoring opponents 102-36. Perhaps the biggest difference, according to Zimmer, is the progression of third-year quarterback Jared Goff, whose 941 passing yards are fifth most in the league.
Goff, the former No. 1 overall pick, has taken a step forward mentally, according to McVay.
“Kind of understands the intent of each play call and how that affects his progression with the rhythm and the timing,” McVay said. “He’s also been able to solve some problems, whether it’s protection-driven or conceptually-driven by the coverage.”
The Rams also have provided Goff with a potent trio of receivers and the league’s highest-paid running back in Gurley. One of the Rams’ biggest offseason moves was the trade for Cooks from New England before signing the receiver to a five-year, $80 million extension.
“They’ve got great receivers,” Zimmer said. “Cooks is a dynamic receiver. [Cooper] Kupp is really good. [Robert] Woods, he looks fast and even better than a year ago. Obviously, Gurley is a hard-running back with great speed to get to the perimeter.”
The Vikings have a legitimate gripe about NFL scheduling. The team hits the road after a short week of practice for the fifth consecutive year under Zimmer. After looking into the results of teams crossing multiple time zones to play Thursday games on the West Coast, Zimmer decided the Vikings would board the flight a day early to better adjust to the time difference.
“We’re practicing a little later and stuff like that,” fullback C.J. Ham said, “just to make sure we’re ready for the game.”
The Vikings offense will be making additional adjustments.
Center Pat Elflein is expected to make his first start. Rashod Hill likely will start at left tackle if Reiff is unable to play. Rookie Brian O’Neill would then start at right tackle. The Vikings might also lean more on running back Latavius Murray, who had 95 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Rams last season, should Cook be limited or out.
And a prideful defense is looking to punch back.
“When you’re playing a team that can run the football and throw the football like they can,” Zimmer said, “it always makes it really, really challenging.”