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Vikings: Pivotal game in Seattle as Vikings face close to must-win in another tough environment

Some key areas to improve upon following Sunday loss to Patriots

Jeff Diamond
December 05, 2018 - 1:46 pm
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For the third time in four weeks, the Vikings hit prime time as they tangle with the Seahawks and their infamous 12th Man crowd in Seattle on Monday Night Football.

The term "must win" is overused in sports and the Vikings could still reach the playoffs with a loss in Seattle, followed by wins over Miami, Detroit and Chicago. But this is close to "must win," especially when it comes to staying within striking distance of the Bears in the NFC North where Minnesota trails by 1 1/2 games, and pulling ahead of Seattle for the top wild card spot. Chicago has a major challenge on Sunday night at home against the 11-1 Rams. Not the least of which is the availability of Bears starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has missed the past two games with a sprained right shoulder from a hit by the Vikings’ Harrison Smith in the November 15 game.

As for the 7-5 Seahawks, most observers thought they were in for a rebuilding year after the departures of several defensive stars, including cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor, and defensive end Michael Bennet, as well as the season-ending injury to safety Earl Thomas.

Two men with a Minnesota connection--Seattle General Manager John Schneider (a St. Thomas grad) and Head Coach Pete Carroll (a former Vikings defensive backs coach)-- built back-to-back Super Bowl teams in 2013-14, and they have done a great job of restocking the roster with young talent.

Of vital importance is that they still have two four-time Pro Bowlers to anchor the offense and defense--quarterback Russell Wilson (an MVP candidate and the NFL's fourth ranked passer with a career high 115.5 rating, 29 TD passes, 5 interceptions) and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (99 tackles to lead the team). They also have the top rushing team in the NFL to take the pressure off Wilson. Wouldn't Kirk Cousins love that?

As a former NFL GM, I think it's interesting that each team's quarterback was not a high draft pick. That means they are examples of great scouting work--Wilson in the third round by Seattle and Cousins in the fourth round by Washington, before he signed as a free agent in Minnesota.

Obviously 7-5-1 would put the Vikings in a much better spot than 6-6-1. Here are several keys to this pivotal game:

 1. Crank up the offense: After the 10 point outing in the loss to the Patriots, the Vikings need to assert themselves offensively in both the running and passing games against Seattle's 20th ranked defense. As Coach Mike Zimmer has made abundantly clear via the media, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo needs to call more than the 13 running plays in Foxboro, especially if Dalvin Cook is gaining over nine yards a carry as he did last week (9 rushes for 84 yards). That would set the table for Cousins to work on Seattle's young secondary that is below the caliber of the infamous Legion of Boom group that dominated the NFL.

Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs need to be targeted much more often, and Cousins can't be constantly throwing short as he did in New England - even when the offensive line was giving him plenty of time to throw most of the game. With San Francisco's fill-in QB Nick Mullens having thrown for 414 yards in losing at Seattle last week, it stands to reason that Cousins should be able to make a lot of big plays in the passing game.

2. More of the hurry-up offense: The Vikings' best drive last week was the hurry-up offense they ran in the last two minutes of the first half leading to a TD pass to Thielen. Cousins has suggested it would be a good idea to run more of this up-tempo offense at other junctures in the game to tire out the defense and prevent substitutions. The Vikings are usually effective when they employ this strategy.

3. Control the Seattle running game and get to Wilson who has been sacked a lot: The Vikings' No. 7 ranked rushing D needs to be better than last week. They allowed the Patriots to run jet sweeps and misdirection plays effectively as they gained 160 yards rushing - well above the Vikings' season average of allowing 99 yards per game. Like New England, Seattle rotates their backs effectively with Chris Carson, Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny all having gained over 350 yards this season. Wilson doesn't run as often as he once did, but he can do it when he has to and can scramble around to buy time for his receivers to get open. He has an excellent starting duo in Tyler Lockett (9 TD receptions) and Doug Baldwin (a holdover from the Super Bowl teams). Wilson has been sacked 37 times (sixth most in the league) so Danielle Hunter and his fellow defenders need to make an impact after last week's zero sack outing against Tom Brady.

4. Special teams need to be a lot better: Minnesota gave up a long kickoff return by ex-Viking Cordarrelle Patterson and a long punt return by Julian Edelman that contributed to the New England loss. So did another missed field goal by Dan Bailey, on which holder Matt Wile was inexplicably late getting on the field. With crunch time here, the special teams have to be more efficient.

5. Don't be intimidated by the crowd: The Seattle fans at CenturyLink Field are among the league's loudest, especially for an outdoor stadium. Cousins and his offensive mates need to be cool and collected as he employs silent counts so they can avoid false starts.

The pick-- Tough one to pick after last week's performance, particularly by the jittery Vikings offense. I see a rebound performance in Seattle in a close 24-20 Vikings victory. Combined with my projected Bears loss to the Rams, Minnesota will be back in the NFC North race with three games to g,o and also in prime wild card position.

Around the NFL observations:

1. Mike McCarthy firing in Green Bay--McCarthy had a great 13-year run with nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title but after consecutive losses to Seattle, Minnesota and most discouraging--lowly Arizona, it was inevitable that he would be fired. I think it was a low class move from an organization I thought was better than that to give him his walking papers with four games left in the regular season. I think it's hogwash to say that gives the Packers more time for their coach search, as their top candidates won't be available to be interviewed until January. It's also ludicrous to say they did McCarthy a favor by letting him go now. I'm sure he doesn't agree and would rather have coached through the season. I see Cleveland as his next stop and he'd be a good hire for a team with a bad recent coaching history who is in need of a strong quarterback tutor for Baker Mayfield.

2. Texans win streak to 10--kind of under the radar, but Houston is a talented team that can be a dark horse Super Bowl candidate in the AFC. I still think the Patriots will make it to their fourth Super Bowl in five years, especially with the departure of top running back Kareem Hunt from the Chiefs after his disgraceful domestic violence incident. But the Texans are on a hot streak and they're strong on both sides of the ball so they should be a tough out.

3. The Bears defense--in a 30-27 loss in the Meadowlands to the Giants, the Bears' vaunted D allowed Saquon Barkley to rush for 125 yards and only sacked immobile Eli Manning three times. Along with their concerns about Trubisky, Chicago is looking beatable at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 30 for the Vikings, who hope they're within a half game of the Bears by then so the game is for the division title.

4. Big game this week that will tell a lot about the NFC East race--Philadelphia at Dallas. For the Vikings' wild card hopes, a nice trifecta would be Cowboys over Eagles, Giants over Redskins and Browns over Panthers. Add a Vikings win in Seattle and a Bears loss to the Rams and it would be a perfect Sunday/Monday.