The Vikings Still Can't Outrun Their Demons

Photo credit: Michael Chow (Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports)

When the Minnesota Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers, it felt like that was the game that would turn everything around. By adopting an aggressive strategy on offense and a willingness to get the ball to their key players, the Vikings looked ready to separate themselves in the race for a playoff spot.

But the Vikings couldn’t outrun their demons when they traveled west to face the San Francisco 49ers.

Sunday’s game followed a trend the Vikings have seen throughout the Mike Zimmer era. Just when they pick up a big victory that appears to erase their problems, their demons return at the worst time and keep this team from reaching its potential.

It began back in 2017 when the Vikings made a stunning run to the NFC Championship game. Although the Vikings were 13-3 during the regular season, there was a weird feeling that reality was about to come crashing down.

Then came the Minneapolis Miracle. When Stefon Diggs hauled in Case Keenum’s prayer, it felt like that was the game that exorcised their demons. But there were also several warning signs, including a porous offensive line that Keenum’s mobility covered up and a coaching staff that had blown a 17-0 lead to the New Orleans Saints and needed the miracle play to bail them out.

Unfortunately, those demons were waiting for them in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Eagles’ 38-7 beatdown of the Vikings carried into the stands, and Zimmer’s team was left searching for answers.

The Vikings had the same feeling in 2019 when they headed to New Orleans for a playoff game. After an uninspiring 10-6 season, fans still weren’t convinced that the Vikings were legitimate contenders in the NFC. There was even a contingent that wanted Zimmer traded to Dallas so the Kevin Stefanski era could begin.

But the game against the Saints sparked a revival. Zimmer concocted a game plan that stifled Drew Brees, and the offense did just enough to give Minnesota a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Never mind that the Vikings blew that lead to go to overtime. They won the coin toss, and with two Kirk Cousins throws (and a nudge by Kyle Rudolph), the demons were banished. A playoff run was on.

Then they went to Santa Clara.

Even with a long touchdown to Stefon Diggs early on, the matchup with the 49ers was over before it started. The Niners gored Minnesota’s aging defense for 186 yards on the ground, and Cousins mustered only 5.9 yards per attempt in a 27-10 loss.

That set the stage for the latest renaissance, which occurred two weeks ago. The Vikings entered their matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers with a 3-5 record. Their defense was ravaged by injuries. Their offense was a conservative mess. It felt like they were on the verge of a rebuild.

And then they beat the Chargers.

The win was a typical one in the Vikings hierarchy, but something felt different. The Vikings were aggressive. They were plucky. It felt like they had something, but we needed to see it again.

Then they did it against the Packers.

Beating the Packers always feels better than beating your average opponent, but it was how the Vikings did it that felt euphoric. By beating a top NFC contender, the Vikings were ready to springboard toward the playoffs with a stretch of winnable games, starting with another trip to the west coast.

But Sunday’s game was riddled with a lot of the bugaboos that have plagued the Vikings this season. When Zimmer stated they would be in trouble if the wrong guys got hurt, it was like he was looking into a crystal ball. All four starting defensive linemen were out for Sunday’s game.

Their depth took another blow when Dalvin Cook dislocated his shoulder, paving the way for Alexander Mattison to slog ahead for three yards a carry. Even Christian Darrisaw was helped off the field, inviting fans back to the Rashod Hill experience.

Depth was just one of the problems on Sunday. Cousins had the stats of an MVP candidate after the win over the Packers and had gained Zimmer’s trust to continue to be aggressive. The only problem is that when Cousins is asked to do that, it’s like opening Pandora’s box.

Cousins’ interception to Azeez Al-Shaair looked eerily similar to the one he threw to Atlanta’s Deion Jones last season. That pick was the culmination of a stretch where Cousins tossed a league-high 10 interceptions over the first six games of the 2020 season and torpedoed the Vikings to a 1-5 start.

Once Cousins committed his first turnover, he reverted to his old ways. Instead of pushing the ball to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, he favored Tyler Conklin, C.J. Ham, and Mattison. He even lined up behind the right guard on a critical fourth-down play.

But the cherry on top was Zimmer’s inability to stop the run. Like in the playoff defeat, the 49ers destroyed the Vikings up front for 206 yards on the ground. It was a performance so dominant, Zimmer resorted to blaming the refs during his postgame presser.

In the end, the Vikings looked like the same team that we’ve come to know and love. Every time it appears they’re on their way to rectify their mistakes, they pop back up in an excruciating fashion.

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