Thank you for submitting questions for this week's Vikings mailbag. You can always send questions to @Andrew_Krammer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen for answers on the weekly Access Vikings podcast or find them here on Friday mornings. Let's get to it.
Q: Is the team actually improving or are these 50/50 games just evening out? It feels like we are cleaning some things up, but the secondary and O-line seem to be up and down. — @bigbadragz
AK: The offense has improved over this two-game win streak, a product of both coaching adjustments and better play. They're pushing the ball downfield. Mike Zimmer publicly and privately has told Kirk Cousins to do so. Note the adjustment from Sunday's 34-31 win against the Packers, when coaches moved Justin Jefferson to the backfield for an option route that netted a 9-yard touchdown. You're not fooling anyone; Jefferson is back there to get the ball in some way, but it worked as a new wrinkle. That's a far cry from the losses to the Cowboys and Ravens, when Jefferson combined for just five catches as both Klint Kubiak and Cousins failed to get him the ball enough. Third-down play calling against Green Bay also tells a more aggressive story. Some of Cousins' longest throws – the 43-yarder and 23-yard touchdown to Jefferson – came on third-and-6 and third-and-3 plays when they've traditionally targeted the first-down markers. That's a coaching staff enabling its playmakers like they hadn't done enough at times this season. Players not getting penalized helps, too. The win over Green Bay was the first time in 10 games that the offense wasn't flagged.
Q: What are some of the more important games left on the NFL schedule, through the lens of a suddenly relevant NFC team? Asking for a friend. — Kyle
AK: This Vikings-49ers game suddenly pits the NFC's 6 and 7 seeds entering the weekend against each other. It's possible the Vikings lose and fall only to the 7 seed, should Philadelphia and Carolina also lose this weekend. But obviously the ideal outlook for the Vikings is to separate themselves with a win against San Francisco, followed by a trip to the winless Lions in Week 12. There are probably three real contenders — Vikings, 49ers, Eagles — for two playoff spots, and that's writing off Cam Newton's Panthers (5-6) and Trevor Siemian's Saints (5-6). But the 49ers and Eagles have easier paths. The Vikings (54.6% opp. win) have the most difficult strength of schedule remaining among the three, while the Eagles have the easiest (49.6%) with five games left in the NFC East. The Eagles have two games left against both the Giants and Washington, but their regular season finale against the Cowboys could mean a lot should this playoff race go down to the final week. Sunday is critical for San Francisco when considering a win over the Vikings would give them the head-to-head tiebreakers over both Minnesota and Philadelphia. The 49ers beat the Eagles in September. The Vikings' key stretch really comes at the end when they are at Bears, vs. Rams, at Packers, vs. Bears.
Q: Forget about just this season because who knows who will be available each week. What will the defensive line look like in 2022? Who's signed beyond this year? — Nathaniel
AK: The Vikings still have a core of defensive end Danielle Hunter and defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce signed through the 2022 season, at least. However, Hunter's contract could be addressed as his June restructure created an $18 million roster bonus next March, when the team will decide whether to keep him on a lofty price for next year or redo his deal. The Vikings could also move on from Hunter, but that seems unlikely after he returned to form before the latest injury. Tomlinson is signed through 2022, and Pierce through 2023. They've got a crop of young defensive ends — D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes, Patrick Jones, Janarius Robinson — signed for at least two more years each. Defensive tackles Armon Watts and James Lynch are also signed through next year. A couple of veterans on one-year rental deals, Sheldon Richardson and Everson Griffen, are scheduled to become free agents next spring.
Q: Do the Vikings have a center? — @skolorwhatever
AK: No. Mike Zimmer maintains his public confidence in former first-round pick Garrett Bradbury, but keeping Mason Cole in the starting lineup despite Bradbury's return said more about how they feel internally. Coaches made that decision because Cole had played well. But Cole got pushed around against the Packers, which appears to be the impetus for Zimmer's week-to-week approach at the position. The adage goes, "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one." That seems to be the case at center. The Vikings will have to make another public declaration on Bradbury this spring when the deadline comes for his fifth-year option. He's currently signed on a four-year rookie deal through the 2022 season. It appears unlikely they add an expensive fifth season, and likely that the team heads into another offseason with a long-term question or two on the O-line. Cole is in the last year of his rookie contract, making him an unrestricted free agent next spring.
Q: This game is about the trenches, and just like the 2019 divisional round, the 49ers will dominate, sadly. Thinking like the Cowboys and Browns home losses this year? — @dhaklar
AK: That's a legitimate concern, especially when pitting the 49ers offense up against a depleted Vikings defensive line that will be without nearly every Week 1 starter. Co-coordinator Andre Patterson said this week he prefers to not use the term "depleted" when analyzing the D-line, but that's the reality. The Vikings' starting defensive line could be D.J. Wonnum, Armon Watts, Sheldon Richardson and Kenny Willekes (or Patrick Jones or Eddie Yarbrough). They're not facing a world-beating 49ers offensive line, but veteran left tackle Trent Williams, center Alex Mack and blockers like fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle aren't slouches. You're right to compare this to the Browns loss, especially as the 49ers grind out slow, patient drives of 18 and 20 plays like they've done in back-to-back opening series in their last two games. The Vikings defensive front needs to find a way to break through and force negative plays on the 49ers offense, otherwise they'll take 3-5 yards at a time all the way down the field. Meanwhile, San Francisco's defensive front is getting replenished. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, defensive end Dee Ford and linebacker Dre Greenlaw returned to practice this week.