It's always pleasing when the Vikings beat the Packers. And perhaps a little more so in effectively ending the Packers’ playoff hopes. But for all the feel-good about a Vikings victory that improves their record to 6-4-1, and substantially improves their playoff chances given the results of other games this past weekend as well, there remains one very disconcerting fact.
The Vikings have not beaten a winning team this season. They may have put the Packers and Mike McCarthy out of their misery, but like the Packers victory, most of the Vikings wins have been against teams pretty much out of the playoff picture at this point: the 49ers, Jets, Cards, Packers, Lions. The Eagles still have a shot at the playoffs, but remain under .500. The combined record of teams the Vikings have beat this season is 20-43-1 (.317).
That’s what pretenders look like, not contenders.
The good teams the Vikings have faced so far this season - the Rams, Saints and Bears - were all losses where the Vikings struggled to match the opposing team’s intensity and execution, despite having at least an equally talented roster.
Coaching and Intensity Key Issues for Vikings
It was somewhat reassuring in the win over the Packers at home last night that the Vikings had the upper hand when it came to coaching, and were able to respond quickly to the early Packers TDs before taking charge in the second half. But this was against a coach in Mike McCarthy who is limping along in his last lap at the helm of the Packers, and a Packers team that was missing several key players for all or part of the game Sunday night.
It’s a W, and that counts, but the Vikings need to show this kind of advantage against good teams as well, and so far they’ve fallen short.
Falling Behind in Game Plan and Execution
Against the Bears, Rams and Saints, the Vikings suffered from an intensity and confidence gap that effected their execution, and their ability to make big or key plays when they needed to. And ultimately that defines a championship team as much as anything.
But what goes hand-in-hand with making big plays when you need them is knowing your team - and coach- is out-scheming the opposition. Opposition research, game plan, and adjustments can make all the difference.
Against the Packers, there was a sense on both sides of the ball that the Vikings had the better game plan, for the most part. Getting the ball to Rudolph when the Packers tried to focus on Thielen and Diggs. Being a little more creative to establish a running game. Finally getting a good screen game with Cook going.
Defensively, incorporating a couple new wrinkles with the three-man double A gap blitz look and the Griffen-Richardson twist. Which allowed the Vikings to generate enough pressure without having to blitz very much - making it easier on the secondary in coverage.
You could also see a visible difference in Mike Zimmer’s demeanor on the sideline compared to the Bears game - he was animated and engaged where he was less so at Soldier Field. And in his post-game press conference he said he talked to Cousins about the offense this past week and also added the new wrinkles in the defense. This is all good and perhaps inspired by a greater sense of urgency.
But one also wonders where this was during the bye-week, with a game against the division-leading Bears next up.
The Vikings had two weeks to prepare for the Bears after their bye-week, but emerged with a poor game plan and a slow start to a big division game in prime time. In fairness to Zimmer, the game plan was weakest on the offensive side of the ball, where Zimmer has less input. But ultimately it’s his team and his responsibility to make the decisions to give his team the best chance to win. And too often he is too slow off the draw - and that has cost the Vikings in several key games over the past couple years.
Against the Bears, where was the hurry-up offense before the fourth quarter? Might that have been a way to get the Bears stout defense off their game? Notice how the Bears mixed their tempo at times throughout the game against the Vikings defense to positive effect? That’s part of having a good game plan.
Similarly, where was the intensity among the Vikings players at Soldier field? The Vikings were coming off a bye-week to a big challenge to their division crown and yet couldn’t muster the intensity to make the plays to win the game. The Bears were in the midst of three division games in ten days and the coach challenged them to win them all. Where was that sort of intensity-inspiring coaching from Mike Zimmer?
There were similar shortfalls against the Rams and Saints, who were both in the midst of challenging parts of their schedule - teams the Vikings beat a total of three times last year - two fairly convincingly. Mike Zimmer probably outcoached Sean McVay more than any other coach in head-to-head matchups last season. But this year it was Zimmer who got outcoached, as McVay took advantage of Zimmer’s use of linebackers in difficult coverage duties to make some big plays.
Interestingly, I don’t think Zimmer has been significantly outcoached by Sean Payton in any of their matchups in terms of game plan - and Payton is a pretty good coach. But Payton did have his troops ready to avenge the Minneapolis Miracle while Zimmer did not rally his troops as well in a key game at home.
So Why Bring Up This Now?
Why the buzz-kill after beating the Packers? It’s about the rest of this key four-game stretch for the Vikings in prime time.
The Vikings face only two more winning teams before the Bears to finish the regular season - the Patriots next week and the Seahawks the following Monday night. The Patriots remain the team to beat in the AFC come playoff time and the Seahawks are playing with a lot of momentum. Both games are on the road.
These are two opportunities for Mike Zimmer and company to show they can compete and win against top quality competition- in coaching, intensity and execution. This is really the time for Mike Zimmer to step up to the plate and deliver as head coach. If the Vikings are going to make a playoff run, it needs to start now - against playoff-quality teams.
Winning on the road against playoff quality teams is something the Vikings need to do to make the playoffs - and if they want to be anything other than an also-ran in the post season. And for Mike Zimmer and the Vikings, that starts with game-planning against the Patriots today and tomorrow.
The Vikings may not have beaten any winning teams so far this season, but at 6-4-1 and the quality of their roster, the Vikings could still catch fire and win the rest of their games. That and a Bears loss - perhaps to the Rams - and the Vikings would still take the division and have a home playoff game and a deep run in the playoffs.
But Mike Zimmer needs to be on his game - and step it up - to get this team to realize it’s potential.
We can talk about the offensive line, or injuries, or what if's, but for this Vikings team, right now, they need coaching to step up their game plan and ability to rally their troops down the stretch. If that happens, everything else will fall into place. If not, this team will bump against a ceiling well below expectations.
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