Adam Thielen has heard the complaints.
Not from Vikings coaches or teammates, but from fans who rode his NFL-record eight consecutive games with 100 receiving yards into the recent fantasy football playoffs they may have lost because of his recent stat lines. The Vikings scored a season-high 41 points against the Dolphins in Week 15, the start of many fantasy playoffs, but Thielen had a season-low two catches for 19 yards.
“I take a lot of heat for not having good games now,” Thielen said Thursday, before catching himself — “for not having high-yardage games in fantasy football, especially in the [fantasy] playoffs.”
There’s a real playoff approach — as in the actual NFL playoffs — this week inside TCO Performance Center in Eagan. The Vikings can clinch a third playoff berth in four years with a win against the Bears on Sunday. A loss and an Eagles win at Washington would end the Lombardi Trophy chase before playing a snap in January.
This is when the actual team could benefit greatly from the real-life star. Thielen’s unsustainable run in the first half of the season produced 115 yards per game. He’s averaged about half that (58.5 yards) in the seven games since.
Even as he ranks fourth in receptions (110) and eighth in yardage (1,335) in the NFL, the Vikings can better find him earlier in games, coach Mike Zimmer said.
In the first half of losses to New England and Seattle, Thielen had only one catch, for a 5-yard touchdown against the Patriots. Those were the only points the Vikings scored in the opening 30 minutes of those games.
“There are a few things we can do,” Zimmer said. “Obviously, he is getting some double coverages, but that is mostly on third downs. But they are obviously paying a lot of attention to him, so I think there are a couple things we are going to try to do.”
One injury on the Bears could help Thielen’s big-game prospect. Chicago’s fourth-ranked defense enjoyed season-long health before two weeks ago, when slot cornerback Bryce Callahan was put on injured reserve.
About 60 percent of Thielen’s targets come on routes run from the inside of the formation, where the Bears are now starting 31-year-old special teams ace Sherrick McManis. Callahan allowed a 78.9 quarterback rating while defending the slot, where corners can’t lean on the sideline for help; that was the NFL’s second best behind Denver’s Chris Harris Jr., according to Pro Football Focus (PFF).
“Bryce had a heck of a season,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s always a big loss when you lose a player like that.”
Thielen said he respects McManis as a former fifth-round pick who thrives the way Thielen did early in his own career.
“He’s been in this league a long time and is probably one of the better special teams players in the NFL right now,” Thielen said. “Usually that translates onto defense or offense as well.”
Quarterback Kirk Cousins scoffed when asked if the Vikings needed to find Thielen earlier in games: “I don’t feel a need to find ways to get Adam the ball just to check the box and say O.K., Adam got touches so now we’re all happy. It’s all about winning.”
Still, it seems likely the Vikings like their chances in the matchup between Thielen and McManis.
The Packers and Aaron Rodgers took notice. McManis was thrown at seven times by Rodgers in his first start for Callahan two weeks ago, per PFF. Rodgers completed three passes for 17 yards, missed a couple throws and had one deflected by McManis. In Thielen, the Vikings have a Pro Bowler who is a better slot receiver than Green Bay’s Randall Cobb.
“It’s all matchups; in the slot, you get better matchups,” Vikings receiver Aldrick Robinson said. “But [Thielen] can kill you from wherever.”
Cousins and Thielen would agree neither needs a big game Sunday as long as the Vikings win. But another star performance from Thielen could go a long way toward a real-life playoff berth, even if it’s a week late for fantasy teams.
“I tell all my friends and family to not draft me,” Thielen said. “So I don’t have to worry about it.”