Just how good, bad or still-developing are the Vikings? Hang on because we’re about to find out in a hurry.
Over the next 18 days, three NFL cities and 3,092 air miles, the suddenly first-place-again Vikings (7-3) play at Atlanta (6-4) on Sunday, return home to face two-time defending NFC champion Seattle (5-5) the following Sunday and then hit the road again to play Arizona (8-2) on “Thursday Night Football” just four days later.
“It seems like every time we play these big-time games, we don’t show up,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “So we got to fix that. We got to fix that right now.”
The Vikings lost to the Packers 30-13 in a first-place battle last Sunday. But the tone of the NFC North race shifted again on Thanksgiving when Green Bay (7-4) handed the lead back to the Vikings with a 17-13 loss to Chicago at home.
Yes, it should be concerning the Packers sandwiched home losses to Detroit and Chicago around a blowout victory at Minnesota. Yes, it is alarming that the Vikings will be facing Julio Jones without injured free safety Harrison Smith, who was ruled out Saturday along with backup cornerback Trae Waynes. But who has time to think that deeply from one head-scratching NFL game to the next?
“The next 18 days will be exciting,” Munnerlyn said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to make the playoffs. So we got to be excited about that and take care of business in Atlanta first.”
The Falcons started 5-0 in their first season under coach Dan Quinn. But turnovers have reared their season-altering head during a 1-4 stretch that now includes three consecutive losses by a combined seven points.
Seattle started the season with two losses, followed by two wins, followed by two losses. The Seahawks have won three of their past four games, including two on the road, but they have beaten the lowly 49ers twice, escaped Dallas with a one-point victory over Matt Cassel and given up 39 points in a loss at home to the Cardinals.
Speaking of Arizona, the Cardinals appear to be the most frightening of the next three opponents. Besides the travel and the short week, the Vikings are looking at a Cardinals team that has won four straight, scored at least 34 points for three consecutive weeks and disposed of Seattle and Cincinnati the past two weeks.
“We’d like them all to be at home, but we have worked since last March to put ourselves in this position,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I still think we have a good football team. We have to correct some mistakes and some things like that. But I do think it’s good that we really have everything right there in front of us if we take care of business.”
So far, the Vikings haven’t beaten teams that currently have winning records. They’re 0-2 against Denver (8-2) and Green Bay, and 7-1 against teams with a combined record of 22-39.
Over the next six games, they play four of their fellow teams currently among the top six in the NFC, including the Giants and Packers in the final two weeks. But for now, here is a closer look at the next three opponents and where the Vikings stand heading into this pivotal 18-day stretch:
NFC playoff position: No. 6
Trending: Lost three straight.
Next three weeks: Vikings (7-3), at Tampa Bay (5-5), at Carolina (11-0). Combined record: 23-8 (.742).
Turnover ratio: Minus-1 (T-18). They are minus-6 with seven lost fumbles and six interceptions the past five games (1-4).
Offense: The Vikings catch a big break because running back Devonta Freeman (concussion) won’t play. When the Vikings struggle, typically problems snowball from sloppiness in the run defense. Freeman is sixth in rushing (764), second in yards from scrimmage (1,184) and is tied for the league lead in touchdowns (11).
Defense: The Falcons are tied for last in the league in sacks (12). That’s good news for a Vikings team that ranks 27th in sacks allowed. Of the Vikings’ 31 sacks allowed, 21 have come in five road games.
Keep an eye on: Atlanta’s kicker. The Falcons became Shayne Graham’s 11th NFL stop when Matt Bryant strained a quadriceps Wednesday. Bryant, out for Sunday’s game, has missed four of 18 field-goal attempts.
NFC playoff position: No. 8
Trending: Won one and three of four.
Next three weeks: Pittsburgh (6-4), at Vikings (7-3), at Baltimore (3-7). Combined record: 16-14 (.533).
Turnover ratio: Plus-1 (T-12).
Offense: The Vikings will catch another break with running back Marshawn Lynch sidelined because of a sports hernia surgery. Or will they? Undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls had 209 yards on 30 carries last week as the Seahawks expanded their running game beyond their typical zone-blocking schemes to maximize Rawls’ strengths. And, for what it’s worth, Rawls also ran for 169 yards against Cincinnati, which runs the same defense as the Vikings.
Defense: This isn’t the same smothering defense from a year ago. A year ago, the Seahawks gave up 39 total points in their final six regular-season games. Two weeks ago, they gave up 39 points in a loss to the Cardinals.
NFC playoff position: No. 2
Trending: Won four straight.
Next three weeks: At San Francisco (3-7), at St. Louis (4-6), Vikings (7-3). Combined record: 14-16 (.467).
Turnover ratio: Zero (T-15).
Offense: Scary. Carson Palmer leads the league in touchdown passes (27) and passer rating (108.6). Larry Fitzgerald Jr. keeps marching toward the Hall of Fame (96 career touchdowns, including seven this year). And running back Chris Johnson is the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher and possibly its best free-agent move of the year. The Cardinals rank No. 1 in total offense (417.3) and No. 1 in scoring (33.6). That’s a lot to worry about on a short week.
Defense: With the No. 3-ranked defense (322.2), Arizona is the only team in the league to rank in the top five on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals lead the league in interception percentage and have returned three of their 14 picks for touchdowns.
NFC playoff position: No. 3
Trending: Lost one after winning five straight.
Next three weeks: at Atlanta (6-4), Seattle (5-5), at Arizona (8-2). Combined record: 19-11 (.633).
Turnover ratio: Plus-1 (T-12).
Offense: They’re tied for the fifth-fewest turnovers (10) and have turned the ball over in their territory only twice all season.
Defense: They have the fifth-fewest takeaways (11) but rank third in scoring defense (18.4) behind New England (18.2) and Denver (18.3).
Munnerlyn admitted that he broke Zimmer’s “24-hour” rule by a few hours when it came to letting go of the painful loss to the Packers this week.
“It took me up until Tuesday night because I was still watching some of the game and trying to get over it,” Munnerlyn said “That was a tough loss.”
By Wednesday, the Vikings appeared to have moved on. By late Thursday, they were back in first place. By Sunday night, the Vikings could have their first four-game road winning streak since the 1998 team went 15-1.
“We let the Packers go by Wednesday,” Munnerlyn said. “We’re still 7-3. We still got our goals in front of us. And that’s to make the playoffs and make the Super Bowl.”