4-3-1 and a hair back in the NFC North is not exactly where Vikings fans envisioned their team in 2018. That said, Minnesota still largely controls their own destiny with a clear path to the postseason.
The FPC Vikings staff gives their specific thoughts on the Vikings’ first eight games and where they see the team going from here.
Who on the Vikings has been the biggest pleasant surprise?
Madison Parkhill: Stephen Weatherly. Filling in during Everson Griffen’s absence, Weatherly consistently generated pressure and was a solid run defender. He’s earned himself more rotational playing time, even with Griffen back.
Clayton Brooks: I’m not really sure if there is any Vikings has been a (pleasant) surprise this season. If I have to pick, then Adam Thielen would have to be my selection, based on his record-setting performance through eight games this season. With the addition of Kirk Cousins at the quarterback, Thielen has jumped to elite level. He leads the NFL in yards and receptions and has yet to be held under 100 yards in any game this season.
Sam Smith: My first choice was Weatherly, but for the sake of variety, I will go with Jayron Kearse. Kearse was primarily a special-teamer his first couple of seasons. This year, however, he has taken on a significant defensive role. Nickel corner, an extra strong safety, linebacker, Kearse has been all over the field, and largely played well wherever he has been. There have been coverage slip-ups here and there, but given this is his first major NFL action, there is a lot to like about Kearse’s play.
Roger Dier: There isn’t much to go on, but I like what I’ve seen out of Holton Hill.
An undrafted free agent, Hill has been all football since joining the Vikings. Great athlete. Has appeared in every Vikings game and he started the last one against the Saints, replacing Xavier Rhodes.
A week earlier, when Rhodes injured his ankle against the Jets, Hill trotted in and a play later he and the rest of the defense were trotting off the field, thanks to Hill’s interception.
To date Hill has 13 tackles, an interception, three passes defensed and stuffed one run for a five-yard loss. Plus, he’s returned three kickoffs for 85 yards.
Who is biggest disappointment?
Parkhill: Harrison Smith. Smith was arguably the best player in football last year. This year he has been beaten in coverage multiple times, including during supposedly soft matchups with the 49ers and Cardinals. Smith has still been solid in the run game and in pressure packages, but he’s falling short of the high standard he has set for himself.
Brooks: I’ve got five names from the same group, so take your pick. The offensive line has been dreadful, to say the least. According to Pro Football Focus, this team is 31st in overall pass blocking, has allowed the most pressures and are 28th in pass blocking efficiency. They’re run blocking hasn’t been any better for seven of those eight weeks. This group more than any other right now is the biggest disappointment, although it’s not surprising, considering most analysts knew that this group was a concern going into the season.
Smith: Xavier Rhodes. Much like Smith, Rhodes was All-World at his position a year ago. He had elevated his play to the class of the elites with his ability to shut down even the most lethal of receivers. This year, however, his coverage has slipped and many more catches are being made in his vicinity. Arguably, his once-maligned partner Trae Waynes has been better, especially from week five on. And now with an injured foot to boot, I am growing skeptical of where the Vikings star’s corner will stand going forward.
Dier: Kirk Cousins needs to be better with the ball. He’s fumbled seven times in eight games and lost three of them. Add four interceptions and Cousins is turning the ball over once per-game.
Last year, Case Keenum turned the ball over eight times in 16 games, and he only fumbled once. It matters.
I’m not hopeful that Cousins can fix his fumbles. During six years in Washington—three as a starter—he fumbled 37 times and in his two playoff games with Washington, he fumbled four times.
If Cousins keeps fumbling along in the last half of the season, his team will fumble along behind him.
What will be the biggest game in the second half of the season?
Parkhill: The two Bears games. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers are obviously dangerous, but it’s the Bears who have a top defense to pair with an above-average offense. Winning both of those games would likely mean the Vikings are again NFC North Champions.
Brooks: To be honest, any of the next four games could be argued. The first three are all divisional games (Detroit, Chicago, and Green Bay in that order), followed by a trip to Foxboro to take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Detroit has been all over the place. They’ve looked great against the Patriots and Packers, but have looked equally bad against the 49ers and Jets. The Bears got off to a hot start but have cooled recently. Overall, they’re still likely the greatest threat within the division. The Packers have looked the worst the three and after making a couple of trades, might be the weakest. Unfortunately, they still have Aaron Rodgers, so there are no guarantees. There’s really not much need to discuss New England. We all know the deal there.
Smith: The way their schedules are shaping, there is a good chance the week 17 matchup with the Bears will be for the division title. A lot is yet to come to fruition; Lions have yet to settle into whether they are good or not and the Packers are hanging around despite asking Rodgers to make grandiose comebacks every week. Still, the Bears and Vikings look like the most complete teams in the NFC North. As such, I expect the final game of the season to have the most playoff implications.
Dier: Detroit, on Sunday. Beating Detroit sends them into the bye at 5-3-1 with the team feeling good. Lose to the Lions and the Vikings are just another smudge on the pot.
How do you forecast the Vikings’ playoff chances?
Parkhill: I like the Vikings to finish at 10-5-1 and NFC North Champions. I think they win two of their next four games, losing road games to the Bears and Patriots. But after that, I think they win their last four games, including the week 17 home matchup against the Bears to clinch the division. Assuming they finish as the three seed, a home playoff game against the Bears or Panthers seems likely.
Brooks: It’s very doable, but the Vikings need to find a way to limit their opponents’ abilities to expose the Vikings offensive line because this group is not likely to get better the rest of the way. Re-establishing the run would be a start. Cousins needs to get Kyle Rudolph and Laquon Treadwell more involved in the offense. Defensively, they’re all right at this stage. They’ve recovered from the early season swoon they were in and have been much better in all phases. That said, they could be a little more stingy against the big play.
If they can find a way to better protect the backfield and give them the chance to function, a 10-5-1 record should be enough for a second consecutive playoff berth.
Smith: The next four weeks are a doozy with three division games and a road game in New England. I expect the Vikings to split those four. Then if they win the following three (not a given, but plausible), that would place them at 9-5-1 going into week 17 at home against the Bears. I think the Bears go in 10-5, so if the Vikings hold serve at home in that game, they will just nip Chicago for the division crown.
Dier: The only way the Vikings are going to make the playoffs is to win the division. They have five division games in front of them. If they go 4-1-1 in the division, they’ll win the North. If they lose more than one division game, they won’t.
–Madison Parkhill writes for Full Press Coverage and covers the Vikings. Follow him @MadPark44.
–Clayton Brooks writes for Full Press Coverage and covers the Vikings. Follow him @ClaytonRBrooks2.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith
–Roger Dier is proud to work with the great writing team that covers the Vikings. Roger also covers the Blackhawks on the NHL side of Full Press Coverage. Stalk Roger on the Twitter thing @rogerdier.
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