Look on the bright side.
The Minnesota Vikings will not lose a big game Sunday.
Ever since the NFL schedule came out, fans have anticipated a dramatic finish the last two games of the regular season against the Vikings’ two primary rivals. Turns out a loss in the first made the second irrelevant.
So what we have Sunday is the rare NFL game that is about feelings, not facts. A victory would be as meaningless as a loss. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knows this, which is why he’s considering resting certain players, but this is one time when Zimmer should let his old-school instincts overwhelm his better judgment.
Zimmer needs to use this game to rally his team.
The Vikings were crushed not just by the loss to the Packers on Monday night, but by the way it occurred.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins justified every criticism ever leveled against him by looking nervous in the first quarter, when the Vikings should have taken a commanding lead.
The offense looked lost without Dalvin Cook, which is problematic because Cook is again having difficulty staying on the field.
The offensive line played progressively worse, to the point where Cousins had to stop feeling jittery about playing in a big game and start worrying about his health and safety.
Playing Sean Mannion does nothing to prepare this team for the playoffs, nor does playing anything other than the full first-team offensive line.
This team needs to be able to wake up on Monday morning feeling like it has a chance to win a playoff game. Because if this team can right itself, there are playoff games that could be won.
Assuming the Packers beat Detroit, if the Seahawks upset San Francisco on Sunday night, the Vikings would play at Seattle. While that is normally a difficult venue in which to play, the Seahawks are battered. The cuteness of signing Marshawn Lynch off the street obscures the sheer desperation of the move.
The Seahawks don’t have any running backs and are shallow at receiver and tight end. The Seahawks might be the best possible first-round matchup for the Vikings.
The New Orleans Saints would represent the most difficult matchup, because of their depth of offensive weapons and their home-field advantage, but they have played three subpar games at home since the beginning of November — losing 26-9 to the Falcons, beating a bad Carolina team 34-31 and losing 48-46 to the 49ers.
The best thing the Vikings have going for them right now is the relative parity of the NFC elite. There are no great teams. The Vikings could be a threat in the playoffs if they play well, but to play well they will need Cousins at his best.
There may be plenty of NFL precedents about teams losing their last two regular-season games and succeeding in the playoffs. I don’t care. We’re talking about the Vikings and Cousins here. This team needs any confidence it can manufacture.
There is the risk of injury, if Zimmer plays his first-team offense against the Bears’ defense, but the higher risk is pretending that this offense is ready to function in a big game.
If the Vikings lose Sunday and then in the first round of the playoffs, they will finish the season with a three-game losing streak, heading into the last year of Cousins’ contract, with another year of wear and tear on an aging defense.
The Vikings finished the 2018 season with an embarrassing 24-10 loss to the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium. As a Viking, Cousins is 1-5-1 against the Packers and Bears, including 0-3 against Chicago.
This is career crunch time for Zimmer, Cousins and General Manager Rick Spielman. This game is technically meaningless but emotionally wrought.
I say play Cousins and the offense until they at least feel good about themselves, assuming that’s a possibility.