When the Minnesota Vikings began this season, they were a team with plenty of talent. With big names on both sides of the ball, they were expected to be a lock for the playoffs. If everything fell right, they could have also been a contender for the NFC.
But this team had a glaring weakness that had nothing to do with the leaky offensive line or Kirk Cousins’ struggles in primetime. It was the Vikings’ vaccination rate.
Just before training camp, Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post revealed that the Vikings had the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL. A few weeks later, The Athletic’s Chad Graff reported that at least five starters remained unvaccinated. Although the NFL had a hold on its COVID situation, it felt that this would catch up with the Vikings at some point.
On Thursday, that moment came when Dalvin Cook was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list. As an unvaccinated player, Cook will be out for the next 10 days. That timetable takes him out of Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams and puts his status in doubt for the Jan. 2 game at the Green Bay Packers.
At 7-7, Cook’s absence appears to come at a terrible time for the Vikings. But even with Cook in isolation, the Vikings’ playoff chances won’t disappear.
Cook is a significant loss for the Vikings. Entering Week 16, Cook ranks third in the NFL with 108.4 rushing yards per game. He was named to his third-straight Pro Bowl earlier this week and might be the biggest star at his position outside of Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry.
But the Vikings have done a great job at acquiring depth, and they’ll get to show it off over the next two games.
The primary beneficiary of Cook’s absence will be Alexander Mattison. Luke Braun pointed out that Mattison isn’t on the same level as Cook, but he can get the job done if the Vikings need someone in a pinch.
Dating back to last season’s finale, the Vikings are 3-1 in games that Mattison has started. He has collected 410 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in those starts, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. What’s more surprising is that Mattison has been a critical component of the passing game, catching 19 passes for 183 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Mattison lacks the speed and vision to be a consistent NFL starter, but the Vikings have gotten a replacement level of production out of him. His presence should help the offense stay on schedule. However, the Vikings will also benefit from the emergence of Kene Nwangwu.
At this point, Nwangwu has been an explosive player. While he immediately impacted special teams, he’s started to earn offensive snaps and has turned those into seven carries for 49 yards. It’s hard to claim that Nwangwu has made a significant impact with a limited sample size, but he brings another gear that Mattison doesn’t have, thanks to a 4.32-second time in the 40-yard dash.
If anything, Cook’s absence could make the Vikings get creative with their running game. Mattison could handle the bulk of the carries and receiving work while the Vikings sprinkle in Nwangwu to deliver a big play.
Braun mentioned some of the shortcomings Nwangwu showed from a loss to the Detroit Lions, but those things are less critical in a smaller role. Nwangwu has the talent to take any play to the house, and that home run ability could also soften the blow.
There are also the opponents that the Vikings are playing over the next two weeks. While Aaron Donald presents a massive problem for the offensive line, the Rams have been an above-average run defense, ranking 11th in EPA against the run this season. With Adam Thielen’s potential return, Minnesota could emphasize the passing game against LA and then go to Mattison in an end-of-game role where he has thrived during his career.
The trip to Lambeau looks even less daunting as the Green Bay Packers rank 28th in EPA against the run. In this case, a run-heavy approach with Mattison could be beneficial because it would kill the clock and keep the ball away from Aaron Rodgers.
This is not how the Vikings drew up their final playoff push, but it’s the way they can survive until Cook returns for the postseason. If they can split one of the last two games, Cook can re-join the team with fresh legs and help make a charge through the NFC.
Cook’s absence is frustrating but commonplace in today’s NFL. As a team with many other flaws, losing Cook will make a playoff push more difficult. But it won’t be the main reason the Vikings miss the postseason.