Who are the 2018 Minnesota Vikings?
Are they the offensively efficient team of 2017, who on defense suffocated and subjugated opponents? Or are they the 2016 team that went into their bye week with mile-wide promise who shrank thereafter with painful-to-watch performances?
We’re halfway through the season and we don’t know what kind of team the Minnesota Vikings are. We know what we hope they become, and we know what we fear they will be.
Let’s assess what we know.
At 4-3-1, the Vikings have yet to beat a team with a winning record. They are better on the road (2-1-1) than they are at home (2-2). They’ve changed kickers but one of the most reliable kickers in NHL history suddenly is missing kicks. They have a high-priced quarterback who can’t take care of the ball, and their top-rated defense of a year ago has become an apparition. Capable of defeating the defending Super Bowl champions in Philadelphia, the Vikings embarrassed themselves by being blown out at home by one of the worst teams in the AFC. Game management by the head coach continues to concern—as does the play calling on offense.
Most perplexing is the knowledge that their No. 3 wide receiver—and former first-round pick—would not be on the field if he played anywhere else other than Minnesota. Is the general manager’s ego is the binding agent that keeps undependable Laquon Treadwell on the field?
Still, the Vikings haven’t lost a division game, they are one of two NFC North teams with winning records in the conference (an important tie-breaker in playoff seeding) and they have five division games left. They have the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL, and every personal and public reward remains intact for this team. But the battered and bruised Hounds of Despair, a breed owned solely by fans of the Minnesota Vikings, are stirring in their kennels waiting to be kicked. Again.
Second Half of 2018
Straight ahead loom the Detroit Lions, who have never lost a game in the Vikings’ new stadium. Head coach Mike Zimmer has to find a way to master Detroit, as the Lions have beaten Minnesota three out of the last four games. The ball-security and pass-batting troubles of quarterback Kirk Cousins have to disappear. He threw a deflating Pick 6 Sunday against New Orleans. It could have been worse: Cousins could have had two more turnovers had not Manti Te’o dropped an interception and replay saved him from another fumble.
The weak part of the Vikings schedule is past. Their first eight opponents have a combined record of 29-32-1. Their next eight are 31-26-1. Following Detroit, the Vikings get their bye, are at Chicago, home against the Packers, at New England and at Seattle. They need three out of the next five games to have a playoff prayer. If they are 7-5-1 with remaining games at home against Miami, away at Detroit and home against Chicago, I like their chances to win the NFC North, which is their best bet to make the playoffs.
Though they trail first-place Chicago by just a game, the Lions have two games left with the Bears and are 1-0 in the NFC North. But the Lions also have the worst conference record of any NFC North team at 1-3.
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The Lions are an enigma, losing to soft touches in the Jets and 49ers but beating New England at home. They lost at Dallas but won at home against Green Bay despite being outplayed. Seattle, with dynamic quarterback Russell Wilson, took the Lions apart last week in Detroit. Detroit’s first seven opponents went 24-28-1, their last nine opponents are 37-29-3. Detroit comes to Minnesota desperate to win because their back-end schedule is tough.
The Packers came out of their bye, played the best game of the year and nearly beat the undefeated Rams Sunday night, but nearly always isn’t enough. The Packers are 3-0-1 at home but 0-3 on the road, and they’re at New England this week and at Seattle two weeks later. They play middling teams like Miami and Arizona at home. Yet a road game two days before Christmas at the Jets is no gimme for Green Bay.
The Packers are 1-1-1 in the division and 2-3-1 in the conference. In the first half of their schedule, the opponents went 27-25-1. In the next nine games, opponents are 34-31-1.
The Bears are back, and they don’t suck anymore. Their front-end opponents went 22-22-1, and their remaining nine opponents are 29-35-2. They have the best conference record of NFC North teams (3-1) and worst division record (0-1). But like the Vikings and Lions, the Bears have five division games left. It’s all in front of the Bears, who are the bell cows of the division with a 4-3 record.
The toughest remaining game for the Bears is a home date against the Rams on Dec. 9, but two games in three weeks against Detroit, one at home with Green Bay and a pair with the Vikings, including the last regular season game in Minnesota, will be dog fights.
Cover Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn/AP
Roger Dier covers the Minnesota Vikings for Full Press Coverage. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerdier.