Middling Minnesota: Vikings hit final stretch, not in stride
EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Though one quarter of the regular season remains for the Minnesota Vikings to finish strong, none of their biggest tests have so far revealed a team playing like the championship contender it was built to be.
The Vikings still have a better-than-average chance of returning to the playoffs, but for all the individual standouts on this roster there has not been enough collective evidence in 2018 that this is more than simply a better-than-average squad.
“Right now, we’re kind of an up-and-down-team a little bit,” coach Mike Zimmer said, “and that’s the thing that frustrates me the most. We need to develop more consistency.”
The latest illustration of this second-tier status came on Sunday afternoon at New England, where the Patriots maintained their December mastery under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady with a 24-10 victory .
There’s no shame in losing on the road to the five-time champion Patriots, particularly when the score is tied at 10 in the final minute of the third quarter, but at some point to have legitimate Super Bowl hope a team has to beat a superior opponent in a challenging setting.
The Vikings (6-5-1) have lost to four of the eight current division leaders this year, teams with a combined 38-10 record. The cumulative standing of their opponents in games they’ve won is 21-49-1 entering Philadelphia’s game on Monday night. The Eagles are the only one with a shot at the postseason.
Up next is a trip to Seattle, where the Seahawks (7-5) have won three straight games to take control of the first wild-card spot in the NFC.
“It’s not over. We still have everything out there in front of us right now, but there definitely needs to be a sense of urgency on getting that done,” running back Latavius Murray said.
In five seasons under Zimmer, the Vikings are 2-9 on the road against teams that made the playoffs. Though the Eagles could add another win this year to the tally, Chicago and New England are likely to push that loss total to 11.
These Vikings are well past the point of a still-developing team trying to find its way and learn how to succeed under the bright lights, and there’s been no shortage of praise expressed by players about the chemistry in the locker room. Zimmer even said on Monday that he thought the practices last week were as sharp as ever.
So while some of the moves made or not made by general manager Rick Spielman during the offseason could be fairly criticized, at least pertaining to the offensive line and the special teams, several questions have been raised in recent weeks about the in-game strategic approach by the coaching staff.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has taken plenty of heat. Zimmer’s long-dominant defense has displayed some uncharacteristic breakdowns in crucial spots. The most scrutiny, though, has fallen on first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
The Vikings have been held to under 300 total yards in three of their past four games, and against a Patriots defense that has allowed 30-plus points four times this season they were frequently stymied again.
Balance has become a significant issue. The Vikings have the fourth-fewest rushing attempts and the third-most passing attempts in the NFL.
Specific game scenarios have dictated some of this discrepancy. Three holding calls, for example, against the Patriots produced these undesirable situations: second-and-17, first-and-18, second-and-20. Many times, the holes in the middle of the line simply have not been there.
Dalvin Cook, though, had a season-high 84 rushing yards at New England — on only nine carries. Zimmer has not been shy, either, about publicly expressing concern about the play calling.
“If I get five, I get 10, two, whatever, I’m just trying to make a play to help my team win,” Cook said. “I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened in the game. Coach Flip has been calling great calls all year.”
Zimmer said he felt the offense “might have panicked a little bit” after the Patriots took a 17-10 lead. On the first play, Kirk Cousins went deep for Aldrick Robinson, a throw that fell incomplete. After a 5-yard run by Murray, Cousins was sacked for a 10-yard loss.
Despite his recent airing of discontent, though, Zimmer offered at least a measured compliment for DeFilippo.
“I think he’s doing a good job,” Zimmer said. “We talk all the time. We talk about things, what I think are important, and I think he tries to do those.”