The Minnesota Vikings weren’t half an hour removed from beating the New York Jets 27-22 in a nail-biter, and Adam Thielen was already ready to shift his mindset to the next game. Sweat still sat on his eyebrows as he proclaimed his intent to begin preparing for the Detroit Lions immediately.
“Every week, you gain confidence, right?” he asked rhetorically. “Like you gain confidence that, ‘Hey, we’re gonna turn this around. We’re gonna find a way. We’re gonna get it going, and we’re gonna win this game.’
“So the more you can just gain that confidence, the better. But I think we’re still far from where we want to be as far as a whole team and putting the whole thing together. But hey, 10 wins. I believe it’s only my second time in my 10 years.
“Excited to get back to work because we have a lot of work to do, and we play a really good football team next week. Kinda already trying to flip the script and move on to next week because it is gonna be a big challenge for us.”
There is a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with his comments about the Lions. In Week 3, the Vikings beat Detroit 28-24 in a game they led for 45 seconds. That started a string of seven-straight wins, all by one score, which the Dallas Cowboys snapped when they blew Minnesota out in Week 11. However, the Vikings have picked up where they left off since that game, with wins over the New England Patriots and the Jets.
Conversely, Detroit’s loss to the Vikings kicked off a five-game losing streak, dropping them to 1-6. However, they beat the Green Bay Packers 15-9 in Week 9 and have won four of five since then. Their lone loss during that streak was 28-25 to the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving. At 5-7 with a manageable schedule to finish out the year, the Lions have something to play for and are 2.5-point favorites at home.
This isn’t a typical Lions game. Except it kinda is.
The Lions is always a trap game. Detroit has only made the playoffs four times since Barry Sanders retired in 1998, and they lost in the wild card round each time. They haven’t had a winning season since they fired Jim Caldwell in 2017. They last won a championship in 1957, the year Ed Donatell entered this world.
Dan Campbell is trying to change Detroit’s reputation, though. The burly, overcaffeinated Texan who said he wanted his players to bite off their opponent’s kneecaps at his press conference and became a star on Hard Knocks in the offseason. He’s changing the culture in Detroit through force of will and has turned his team into a pitfall for opponents who overlooked them.
The Vikings learned that the hard way last year. Their last-second, 19-17 win over the Lions in Week 5 culminated in Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins’ awkward exchange after the game. It was a harbinger of what was to come. Zimmer and Cousins never developed chemistry in their four years together, and the team was on edge all year. Minnesota’s 29-27 loss in Detroit, which ended with Cameron Dantzler playing off Amon-Ra St. Brown in the end zone, was an early indicator that things were about to fall apart.
The Vikings aren’t the same team this year, though. Except they kinda are.
Instead of losing half their games in crunch time, they’ve won 10 by one score. Their two losses are to NFC East juggernauts, the caliber of team they won’t face all year. The Vikings may end up winning out, but it will require they either start putting teams away or continue winning close ball games. The former seems unlikely; the latter is improbable.
Minnesota can conceivably go 1-5 in their next five games and end up as the 2-seed. However, the bigger concern is that they enter a vicious cycle. To use an extreme to highlight the example, let’s say Detroit beats them at the last second. They beat Jeff Saturday, leader of men™, and the Indianapolis Colts next week but lose to Brian Daboll and the New York Giants after that. Then they drop a 3:25 game to a Packers team going nowhere in Lambeau, and the Chicago Bears drag them into the mud at Soldier Field.
Does anyone feel good about that team heading into the playoffs?
The fans will be anxious. The media will be skeptical of a team that had a negative-two point differential after the Cowboys routed them in Week 11. The team will say they’re confident going into the playoffs, but self-doubt will inevitably creep in. They’re living life on the edge right now, and there’s no guarantee they can keep winning close games.
Minnesota will have to stave off monotony to avoid this vicious cycle. They’re caught in a Groundhog Day-like reality. They get up early in the game, struggle in the third quarter, and hang on for dear life in the fourth quarter. It’s no way to live. Every week the Vikings practice in the afternoon on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, then escape with a victory on Sunday. They can only hear about how dangerous the Lions are so many times.
Fortunately, the coaches are aware of this and trying to shake things up. Kevin O’Connell and his staff have repeatedly emphasized that the Vikings are a player-led team. They’re self-motivated, rather than relying on O’Connell or his coordinators – Wes Phillips (offense), Donatell (defense), or Matt Daniels (special teams) – to get them up for games.
“Going into Week 14, the biggest thing for us, especially as coaches, is really just resisting the urge to go into autopilot,” says Daniels. “What you see, what happens a lot in this league, is things start becoming really monotonous. Thirteen weeks, the same exact deal, the same practice, same meeting schedule. So with that, you kinda get into a cruise control, autopilot-type of feel.”
“Allowing some of those guys to kinda take ownership in that meeting room is how guys are able to learn how to watch tape,” says Daniels. “Not only that but have a lot of respect for their teammates in that setting because I’m also big on public speaking. It’s easy for a guy like Josh Metellus to go speak in front of 10,000 people that he doesn’t know. But to get in front of a room of all your peers, who you spend hours on end with, that’s very difficult to do.”
Patrick Peterson, 32, called a team meeting after the bye week to remind them not to read too much into their 5-1 record. They have to take every game seriously. Thielen has worked with Justin Jefferson, telling him it’s okay to be frustrated when Kirk Cousins misses him, but he’s also used the film to allow him to see what Cousins is seeing.
The Lions always present the same challenge: Don’t fall into the trap. But they’re more dangerous than they’ve ever been this year. They beat the Vikings last year and are favored on Sunday. Minnesota doesn’t have to beat them to avoid a vicious cycle. But why tempt fate again? What’s wrong with taking the next step to putting this whole thing together? It beats doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting the same result, which is nothing more than a unique twist on insanity.