After a five-game winning streak featuring near-historic defensive play and a four-game losing streak featuring near-historic offensive line mayhem, the Vikings could see the direction of their season determined during five days in November.
During these five days, they will face two playoff contenders, one of which technically leads the NFC North. The Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions provide disparate challenges for a desperate team.
Football is designed to be played no more than once a week, allowing time for healing and hype. Having taken their bye when times were good, the Vikings will have to resurrect hope during a compressed week. There will be no rest for the weary, and the Vikings appear to be quite weary.
The defense remains among the best in the NFL but has ceased its dominating ways, instead too often resembling a stunt man hanging on to a hood during a staged car chase. There may be a reason for that.
Other than nose tackle Linval Joseph, the Vikings’ most important defensive players are lean and fast rather than bulky and powerful. They are at their best on fast surfaces and with crowd noise in their favor. Over the past few weeks they have looked a half-step slow and perhaps over-bruised. They are late to the quarterback and missing tackles.
In basketball, they say that when the quick players slow down the tall players are still tall. When the Vikings defense is a half-step slow, the hulking offensive linemen they’re opposing are still big. And that’s where the Cardinals will challenge them.
The Cardinals play power offensive football and feature a power back in David Johnson. The Vikings will have to beat Arizona’s offense to the point of attack to win enough skirmishes to win the game. That has been a challenge in recent weeks.
On Thanksgiving, the Vikings will be forced to travel on a short schedule to play a team that just won at U.S. Bank Stadium, and they will have to adapt, in about two days of preparation, from facing a power team to facing a quick-passing team led by Matthew Stafford, who has emerged as one of the league’s best quarterbacks in the past calendar year.
This week will prove as inconvenient as it is important, but the Vikings have no room to complain. If they had managed the clock better against Detroit, or won any of the past four winnable games, they would lead the division and be in prime shape to make the playoffs. Four weeks of failure have raised the stakes for these five days.
Win twice, and the Vikings are 7-4, leading the division and victories against Chicago and Jacksonville away from reaching nine victories and a probable playoff berth.
Lose twice and the Vikings are 5-6, riding a six-game losing streak, devoid of confidence and facing a remaining schedule that includes games against Dallas and at Green Bay on Christmas Eve, making a .500 record a challenge.
But if this season has taught anything, it is that schedules deceive. The Vikings went 5-0 against the supposed difficult portion of the schedule and 0-4 against a declining rookie quarterback (Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz), one of the league’s worst teams (Chicago), a team that has been outscored this season (Detroit) and one of the league’s least predictable teams (Washington).
All is not hopeless. Sam Bradford has proved tough and accurate, Stefon Diggs continues to rise toward stardom, new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has involved Cordarrelle Patterson, and cornerback Terence Newman continues to defy age and game plans.
If the Vikings had lost four straight earlier this season and made it to 5-4 with a five-game winning streak, Mike Zimmer would be getting Coach of the Year attention and the team would be leading national sportscasts.
Sequencing has made this season feel like a disaster, but it’s not — at least not yet. Without their original star back, franchise quarterback, offensive line and offensive coordinator, the Vikings are positioned to take control of the division. Over the next five days, the Vikings can take a stand, or take a knee.