Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
The Vikings say they’ve been here before — six weeks ago, to be exact, after their thrilling win in Buffalo. They followed that up with the 40-3 clunker against Dallas. Now, after winning the NFC North with the biggest comeback in NFL history, Vikings coaches and players want to avoid a letdown similar to the Dallas fiasco with the Giants coming to town on Saturday.
“It’s definitely something we’ve talked about this week, acknowledging the emotional toll of putting everything you’ve got into achieving something that happened to clinch the division, a goal we’ve had since the beginning,” Coach Kevin O’Connell said. “There’s also the accountability of things we need to get better at and doing our jobs at a level that will contribute to playing winning football. That message is clear, and now we’ve got to put it into action.”
Cornerback Patrick Peterson said the experience from the Buffalo high to the Dallas low should help. “We had the opportunity to go through this earlier and didn’t get the result we wanted,” he said. “This week will be extremely important. The Giants are fighting with playoff implications, and we’re going to get their best shot, so we understand we have to be at our best.”
Like the Vikings, the Giants must refocus after an important down-to-the-wire win in Washington. That game came down to a 4th down incompletion from the Giants 6-yard line where there was an obvious pass interference in the end zone that was not called against New York nickel corner Darnay Holmes. With the win, the 8-5-1 Giants hold the NFC’s No. 6 seed and a tie-breaker edge over No. 7 Washington.
How Vikings Can Avoid Indy Hangover
A win in Minnesota would solidify the Giants playoff hopes. At the same time, the 11-3 Vikings need to keep winning with the 49ers, victors in seven straight, one game behind in the race for the NFC’s No. 2 seed and owning a tie-breaker edge (based on conference record) on the Purple. So there’s a lot at stake for the Vikings and Giants on Christmas Eve Day.
Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the G-Men:
1. Get Dalvin cooking: the Giants rank No. 29 against the run (allowing 5.4 yards per carry, and the Commanders rushed for 159 yards last Sunday). Cook is coming off a 95-yard rushing day against the Colts that gave him his fourth straight thousand-yard rushing season (1,045 yards gained). Cook also had 95 yards receiving, including the game-winner on a screen that we’d like to see more of from O’Connell and Cook. But Alexander Mattison should get more game action to help keep Cook healthy and fresh for the playoffs. And Cook needs to stop fumbling after putting the ball on the ground the past two weeks.
2. Pass protect against a strong group of pass rushers and a big blitzing team: Kayvon Thibodeaux, the fifth overall pick last April, had his best game against Washington with a strip sack/scoop and score, 12 tackles, and three tackles-for-loss. He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, and he’ll be rushing often against Christian Darrisaw as he tries to sack the NFC Offensive Player of the Week — Kirk Cousins — who is coming off two straight 400-plus passing yard games and was just selected to his fourth Pro Bowl.
The Giants are strong up front, with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence sure to test the interior offensive line of the Vikings. It appears center Garrett Bradbury (back) will miss this game, so Austin Schlottmann needs to step up in his absence, and Ed Ingram also will be tested inside. Cousins was sacked seven times last week, so the O-line must play better (as they did late in the Vikings comeback against Indy).
3. Take shots downfield against a suspect and likely shorthanded secondary: a solid corner in Adoree Jackson is likely out, which will aid the Vikings excellent receivers if Cousins has time to throw (look for more of the quick passing game early). Holmes has been picked on this season so getting Justin Jefferson matched up with him is a good idea (even if J.J. is double covered). And keep spreading the wealth to Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn, who is coming off a career day.
4. Throw often to T.J.: Hockenson should have a good day, as the Giants allow a 113.9 passer rating when tight ends are targeted. Linebacker Jaylon Smith has struggled at times in coverage, and the Giants are still missing starting safety Xavier McKinney (hand).
5. Stop the runs of Barkley and Jones: Saquon Barkley is a Pro Bowler with 1,170 rushing yards to rank fourth in the NFL. He had several big runs late against Washington. Daniel Jones is another QB who likes to run (583 yards, 5 TDs) and must be contained. The pressure is on the entire defense to tackle well and contain these two players.
6. Stay aggressive in pass rushing with timely blitzes while not allowing Jones to escape when pressured: the Giants have allowed 44 sacks, third-most in the league. Danielle Hunter vs. improved Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas will be a good matchup. Vikings Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith played his best game in several weeks against the Colts and appears to be over his knee issues, which is good news for the Vikings defense. Smith should have some inside rush opportunities. He’ll test rookie right tackle Evan Neal, who has struggled at times this season (including three sacks allowed in Week 3 to the Cowboys and several pressures last week).
Daniel Jones has improved this season under Coach Brian Daboll, but his receiving corps is nowhere near the caliber of the Vikings’ group.
7. Tighten up the kickoff coverage and Joseph stay hot with another good opposing kicker coming to the Vikings dome: the Colts had a 48- and 49-yard kickoff return last week, so the Vikings kickoff coverage team must get back to their solid early season play. Patrick Jones will return to the punt protection team, which was a problem when he was out last week, leading to the blocked punt TD when his replacement Luigi Vilain, missed his block.
Greg Joseph has been really good lately (5 for 5 last week on PATs, plus making the game-winning field goal), so that needs to continue. The Giants’ Graham Gano is having an excellent year, converting 24 of 27 field goals, including 7 of 8 over 50 yards.
8. Manage the snaps for injury-risk players: O’Connell would love to win a game going away so he can take key players out late, such as Jefferson, who has taken a lot of tough hits lately (and not by accident, according to O’Connell). Add vets such as Cook, Thielen, Darrisaw, Za’Darius Smith, Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith…and even Cousins, whose arm could probably use a break after throwing 95 times in the past two weeks along with taking plenty of hard hits this season as he’s done a great job hanging in the pocket and absorbing the body shots.
Jeff’s Prediction: It’s the final home game before the Vikings host the No. 6 or 7 seed in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The Vikings are 7-1 at home this season. I think they’ll avoid the post-Indy letdown and make it 8-1 at home and 12-3 overall with a 27-20 victory over a Giants team that will have trouble stopping the Vikings offense and keeping the pass rushers off of Jones, who will throw a couple picks as the underrated Vikings run D holds Barkley under 100 yards.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Philly at Dallas—the Eagles will win the NFC East and wrap up the NFC’s No. 1 seed with one more win. The Cowboys come off a bad overtime loss in Jacksonville on a Pick Six thrown by Dak Prescott. Jalen Hurts has a sprained shoulder, and Coach Nick Sirianni said Thursday that Gardner Minshew would start at QB, which is disappointing not to see Hurts in this big game. I would’ve picked Dallas at home even if Hurts played, but now it’s more clear that Dallas wins this game, but Philly will win the division and top seed next week at home against the Saints, with or without Hurts.
2. Can the 6-8 Packers stay in the wild card hunt by upsetting the Dolphins in warm-weather Miami? The Dolphins also need a win in the tight AFC wild card race, and I think they’ll end their three-game losing streak. That would be good news for the Vikings as they would likely face Jordan Love and not Aaron Rodgers on New Year’s Day in cold Lambeau.
3. The Vikings would love to see Washington upset San Francisco out west. Sorry, Taylor Heinicke is not beating the NFL’s top defense unless rookie QB Brock Purdy turns it over several times. Coach Kyle Shanahan will keep Purdy playing conservatively, especially with Deebo Samuel out injured for this game and possibly until the playoffs.
4. The hot Lions—winners of six of their last seven games—are back to .500 and smelling playoffs, but they’ve got a trap game in Carolina before closing with the Bears and Packers. I’m picking the Lions in a close one over the Panthers, who amazingly are still alive at 5-9 in the lousy NFC South led by the 6-8 Bucs, who play on Sunday night at Arizona (why wasn’t a better game flexed into this prime time spot?… and the NFL is foolish since Tom Brady is the reason and he was awful last week with four turnovers against the Bengals).
5. It was nice recognition of an excellent season for the Vikings, with five players selected to the Pro Bowl and a bunch of players earning alternate status. Congrats to the Vikings five — Cousins, Jefferson, Hockenson, Za’Darius Smith, and long snapper Andrew DePaola.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl