Ever since the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins in 2018, fans have become frustrated with the team’s inability to consistently perform primetime games. Games in the early time slots have been favorable to the team. Games in primetime have featured both clunkers and heartbreakers, along with a few wins along the way.
Nearly half of Minnesota’s games (eight) are currently scheduled outside of the noon slot next year, including four night games after the bye week. If they can’t perform when America’s eyes are on them, it could cost both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman their jobs.
What is the root of their primetime problems? And is there anything that can be learned from their past failures?
I went back and crunched the numbers to see how much different the team plays when the lights are brightest. I included the 2019 playoff games and last year’s Christmas Day disaster as primetime games when all eyes were on the team. And because of this, I determined that the 2018 season finale against the Chicago Bears should be included, as it was essentially an elimination game.
- Record: 7-2-1
- Offense: 353.6 yds/gm, 24.8 points/gm, 1.3 turnovers/gm
- Defense: 296.1 yds/gm, 18.6 points/gm, 1.4 takeaways/gm
- Record: 1-5
- Offense: 332.1 yds/gm, 18.6 points/gm, 1.2 turnovers/gm
- Defense: 332.2 yds/gm, 25.8 points/gm, 1 takeaway/gm
The difference in the numbers during the 2018 season are staggering. Minnesota averaged one touchdown less in primetime games while the defense allowed over seven points more per contest. The 57-yard advantage the Vikings held in non-primetime contests was a virtual draw under the lights.
Perhaps most glaring is that at first glance, Cousins appeared to have more success in primetime. He threw 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions in these games. However, two of the interceptions were run back for touchdowns. Cousins also fumbled, and the ball was run back for a score in a Monday night loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
With a playoff berth on the line, the Vikings just needed to beat the Bears in the final game of the season. Chicago already had the division and their playoff seeding locked up. Instead, both teams played the game the other team should have played. Minnesota laid an egg, mustering up a mere 164 yards of offense. The Bears ran for 169 yards, and the Vikings were eliminated and embarrassed following the 24-10 defeat.
- Record: 8-4
- Offense: 363.8 yds/gm, 26.6 points/gm, 1.2 turnovers/gm
- Defense: 331.6 yds/gm, 17.5 points/gm, 1.9 takeaways/gm
- Record: 3-3
- Offense: 300 yds/gm, 20.5 points/gm, 1.3 turnovers/gm
- Defense: 353 yds/gm, 23.3 points/gm, 2 takeaways/gm
Once again, the Vikings performed worse in the big spot. Kirk didn’t gift the opposition any points this time around, but the offense was again underwhelming in primetime — to the tune of nearly 64 yards fewer and six points fewer per game, while the defense allowed 22 yards and nearly a touchdown more per game.
This was never more evident than in the penultimate game of the regular season. With a Week 16 date against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football, the Vikings still had a chance to win the NFC North. Unfortunately, Minnesota only managed 183 yards of total offense, one yard shy of what Green Bay ran for as a team (sound familiar?). The Vikings, reminiscent of a year earlier, lost 23-10, securing the sixth seed in the NFC.
- Record: 6-7
- Offense: 27.1 points/gm, 391.8 yds/gm, 1.4 turnovers/gm
- Defense: 29.5 points/gm, 403.5 yds/gm, 1.3 takeaways/gm
- Record: 1-2
- Offense: 26 points/gm, 399.3 yds/gm, 1.3 turnovers/gm
- Defense: 30.7 points/gm, 348.7 yds/gm, 1.6 takeaways/gm
The sample size was smaller last year, and we all know that the Vikings struggled with injuries. But issues still arose in the big moments. In Week 5, Minnesota entered Seattle with a 1-3 record. Even though the Vikings were in prime position to steal the game on a late 4th and 1, the Seahawks defense held firm and responded with a 94-yard touchdown drive to drop the Vikings to 1-4.
Even though Minnesota had limped through the season with a patchwork defense, they somehow entered Christmas Day at the Superdome with a slight chance of making the playoffs. A victory over the New Orleans Saints was unlikely, and the win alone wouldn’t have gotten the team into the postseason. But they needed to win.
Instead, the Saints were the superior team and embarrassed the Vikings 52-33. Alvin Kamara ran for a record-tying six touchdowns. Once again, Minnesota didn’t put up a fight late in the year when they needed a victory.
Every year since Cousins signed, the Vikings have played below their standards in primetime games. It hasn’t all been because of Cousins, although he has his fair share of blame in the matter. A contender should be elevating itself in these moments, not losing points and productivity. The team has four primetime games slated for the 2021 season. On paper, the roster looks improved and has the potential for a deep playoff run, but that won’t come to fruition if they can’t win when the lights are brightest.