The Vikings are visiting the Empire State this week in hopes of Building a winning record again. The Prospect of Park-ing at the bottom of the division seemed like a Brooklyn Bridge too far when the season started. But that’s exactly where they find themselves: Park-ed in the cellar of the former NFC Central.
The film from last week’s game in Chicago definitely won’t end up in The Museum of Modern Art. The Bears Flatiron-ed the Vikings all day. The team from the land of Lincoln Center-ed around stopping Dalvin Cook and the run game. The offensive line looked like wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s. Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd, and Nick Kwiatkoski repeatedly took The High Line to Kirk Cousins and kept Flushing him out of the pocket.
Cousins is paid like a Rockefeller but he flopped worse than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway against the Bears. When he did have Times to Square up and pass, he couldn’t form a Union with his receivers. Cousins holds onto the ball like the Statue of Liberty holds onto her torch. He sensed pressure even when it wasn’t there, running around like he just got off the Coney Island Cyclone. The Bears swept the Vikings off Soldier Field like the Sandman at the Apollo Theater.
Although the former NFC Central is pretty Grand this year, a 2-2 record isn’t Terminal. The Bears defense Cloisters a lot of their opponents. While last Sunday certainly felt like Ground Zero, don’t sell all your Vikings stock on Wall Street just yet. The Giants have a rookie quarterback that’s receiving a Smorgasburg of praise through his first two career starts. Can the Vikings put his hot start in the New-York Historical Society and advertise that they’re still relevant on Madison Avenue? Or will they look like tourists that don’t belong in the One World Observatory of NFC playoff contenders?
First of all, congratulations on navigating through those awful tourist attraction puns like savvy veterans of the NYC subway system. I like to reduce the strain of staring at your screen by making you roll your eyes a lot at the beginning of these long preview articles. Now that your optical calisthenics are complete, let’s have a serious discussion about how much we wish Eli Manning was still the starting quarterback for the Giants.
Oh, Eli. You couldn’t have held onto your job for just a few more weeks? You had a 3-6 career record with 5 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 3.91 adjusted yards per attempt, and a 56.1 quarterback rating against the Vikings! But noooo, you just had to cede your starting job to Daniel Jones. “Danny Dimes” has already taken New York City by storm with a thrilling comeback over Tampa Bay in his debut and an easy win over Washington last week. Jones has injected a shot of adrenaline to a team that was seemingly left for dead after the first two weeks. He has shown off some nice pocket presence, especially for a rookie. He certainly isn’t afraid to take shots downfield and he’s making some big plays with his legs.
Basically, Jones is a lot like Mitchell Trubisky, except he can also pass to his left. That said, he’s still a rookie making his third NFL start on Sunday. His willingness to make the big time passes has already backfired on him, especially when facing pressure.
The Giants will be at full strength in the passing game for the first time this season now that Golden Tate is back from suspension. Tate made his share of big plays against the Vikings during his tenure with the Lions, especially from the slot. Sterling Shepard has been stellar while Tate was out, doing a lot of his damage over the middle. Evan Engram leads the team in every receiving category. His speed and athleticism make him a matchup nightmare and Pat Shurmur has schemed a variety of ways to get his star tight end open. With how much damage Darren Waller did against the Vikings two weeks ago, Engram could be in line for a big day. Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes will need to be on their game in order to get the Giants offense off the field.
Until Saquon Barkley went down with a high ankle sprain two weeks ago, most assumed that stopping the Giants run game would Minnesota’s top priority on Sunday. Backup Wayne Gallman looked good catching the ball out of the backfield last week, but he is nowhere near the caliber of runner that Barkley is. The Vikings defense needs to make New York one-dimensional and dare Jones to win this game with his arm. If they can take away his quick reads and prevent him from scrambling for extra yards, they should be able to keep the New York offense in check for most of the day. The Giants have been the most turnover-prone team in the league through the first month of the season, coughing up the ball on over 20% of their offensive drives. Jones will probably give the Vikings defense at least a couple of opportunities; they will need to capitalize on those chances.
While we’re on the subject of the Vikings defense, maybe we should pump the brakes on the whole “they got picked apart by a backup last week” talk. While the opening drive was maddening to watch, they still held the Bears to 16 points. Three of those points were from a drive that went -4 yards following Mack’s strip-sack to open the second half. Chicago had 269 total yards, 72 rushing yards on 33 carries, and went 5 for 16 on third down. Those aren’t exactly video game numbers.
I tend to agree with Arif Hasan’s breakdown of what went wrong in the Chicago game: while the defense had its hiccups and the offensive line did the team no favors, the Vikings’ struggles start with the poor play of Cousins. The rap on the much-maligned signal caller used to be that he put up big numbers while never really elevating his team when it counted. This season, even the numbers are abysmal. Cousins seems to be painfully aware of his shortcomings; he even had Adam Thielen on his Under Center podcast this week to offer an awkward public apology to his wide receiver.
While the outlook looks pretty bleak for Cousins right now, there is still plenty of season left for him to at least be serviceable enough for the Vikings to compete. Matthew Coller made cases for and against Cousins bouncing back on Tuesday. The good news: receivers are getting open and Cousins has historically been better than what he has shown through the first four weeks. The bad news: he’s holding onto the ball behind a line that isn’t blocking well, he seems less willing to stretch the field, and the upcoming schedule is going to be extremely tough.
At this point, how blame is distributed to the Vikings’ woes is irrelevant. You can point the finger at Cousins, the offensive line, the questionable play calling, or the defense that can’t seem to get going early on the road. Regardless of where you stand on this depressing chicken/egg debate, the fact remains that each area of the team needs to get better. Thankfully for the Vikings, their upcoming opponents shouldn’t be quite as stout as what they encountered in Green Bay and Chicago.
The Giants defense was shredded to the tune of 460 yards per game for the first three weeks, leaving them 31st in defensive DVOA. They stepped up in a big way last week against Washington. New York had the best single-game defensive DVOA of any team this season, forcing two turnovers and allowing only 176 total yards. But a lot of that perceived improvement was self-inflicted by the Redskins offense. Dwayne Haskins clearly wasn’t ready to be thrust into the game midway through the second quarter last week as he threw three ugly interceptions. Before being benched, Case Keenum threw a pick of his own along with leaving plenty of yards on the field on badly missed passes.
The Giants secondary looked a lot better in Week 4. Janoris Jenkins was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. But they have still struggled on the whole this season. Before shutting down the hapless Redskins, Jenkins and rookie DeAndre Baker had combined to allow 30 catches for 578 yards and five touchdowns through the first three games. Markus Golden and Lorenzo Carter have generated a solid amount of pressure off the edge, but they won’t be confused with Mack and Za’Darius Smith. The Vikings offensive line should have a better day protecting the quarterback, especially if Josh Kline can return to the lineup. Giants opponents have had a lot of success with vertical routes against their iffy secondary.
If Cousins can’t find Thielen and Stefon Diggs open on Sunday, I’m not sure when he will. (That’s if, you know, Diggs actually plays. Because why not throw in a ton of drama and speculation four weeks into the season?) The Giants run defense isn’t nearly as smothering as the Bears, but they have been solid enough to assume that Cook and Alexander Mattison won’t be able to consistently move the ball by themselves. Minnesota’s passing attack needs a breakout game in the worst way; this week seems like a prime opportunity.
Kevin Stefanski will have to get more creative with his play calling this week with a familiar face roaming the opposing sideline. Shurmur knows most of the pieces of this Vikings offense very well. It might be advantageous for Stefanski to try different plays out of formations and looks Shurmur implemented when he was in Minnesota. It will probably help even more to lean on the zone blocking and big sets that have been implemented since Shurmur left for New York.
Apologies for stating the obvious here, but getting out to a good start on Sunday is going to be crucial. It’s no surprise that a team that wants to establish the run so badly has looked so much better with the lead this season. The Vikings haven’t had a single lead change in any of their first four games. When they have the lead, they can look like world beaters. When they’re trailing, they can look hopeless. If the defense can buck their alarming trend of allowing touchdowns on opening drives, they should be in good shape.
As odd as it may sound, it feels like this game might be more like a gauge of where the Giants are as a team. We kind of know who the Vikings are twenty games into the Kirk Cousins Experiment: they usually take care of business against less talented teams and they usually crap the bed against better teams. The Giants have found new life with Jones, but let’s face it—they should have lost to the Buccaneers and nobody should lose to Washington. I still have serious doubts about the long-term success of this Vikings team, but I think Week 5 will give us a slight reprieve from the negativity, if only for a New York minute.
I was compelled to include all those cheesy tourist puns in the introduction because I will be making my debut as a cheesy tourist in New York this weekend. I’ll be at MetLife Stadium on Sunday to see the action in person. I’m also going to Game 1 of the ALDS between the Twins and Yankees on Friday. If things go well, there is potential for a truly legendary Minnesota sports weekend. Of course, if I’m wrong about the Vikings game and the Twins do what they usually do against the Yankees in the playoffs, I may have to start a GoFundMe for the years of therapy incurred by this trip.
Even if the Vikings do lose to the Giants and continue their death march to mediocrity, it probably won’t be as bad as the last time they visited the blue side of MetLife Stadium. You remember that one back in 2013, don’t you? The infamous Josh Freeman Game!
Let’s hear it for New York: Skol Vikings and Go Twins.
Vikings 24, Giants 13
And now for the rest of my Week 5 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
SEAHAWKS over Rams
I think Rams fans might have to start getting a little worried that the league has started to figure Jared Goff out. He has looked pretty pedestrian through the first month of the season. I still think the Rams are a very good team, but at Seattle on a short week will be tough.
TEXANS over Falcons
I’ll go with Houston because they look like less of a train wreck, but would anything surprise you with these two teams? I feel like I could glance up at the “around the league” scoreboard at MetLife on Sunday afternoon and see any combination of numbers between 0 and 41 for each team.
Bills over TITANS
I’m writing this article a day early, so I have no idea whether Josh Allen is going to play on Sunday. So take this pick with a grain of salt. With their defense, Buffalo could still win an ugly game with Matt Barkley just like the Bears did with Chase Daniel last week.
Bears over Raiders (in London)
I know it’s oversimplifying things to compare how each team did against the Vikings, and I know that overseas games can always be a bit wonky. But c’mon: Derek Carr against THAT Bears defense?
Cardinals over BENGALS
Cincinnati just played on Monday night, but this matchup is so bad that I’m still a little surprised that ESPN isn’t carrying it. Unless Arizona gets its second tie in five games—which would be a hilariously perfect way for this one to end—one of these new head coaches will finally get their first career win.
Patriots over REDSKINS
For the fourth time in the first five weeks, the defending Super Bowl champions are playing against a winless team. Fun! This seems fair.
Buccaneers over SAINTS
As much as I love Teddy Bridgewater, he has looked pretty pedestrian despite winning both of his starts. As much as I love to make fun of Jameis Winston, he has looked better under Bruce Arians. So I’m picking the upset here, knowing full well that it’ll probably blow up in my face when Winston throws two touchdowns to the wrong team.
EAGLES over Jets
My survivor pool pick of the week, now 4-0 on the season but in need of a different strategy since the Dolphins are on a bye. Still feeling pretty good about this one, even with the outside chance of Sam Darnold returning.
Ravens over STEELERS
It was nice of Pittsburgh to finally look like a real football team on Monday. But now they actually have to face a real football team.
Jaguars over PANTHERS
The Panthers looked pretty impressive in Houston last week. It looks like Kyle Allen is going to give Cam Newton all the time he needs to recover. But I’m still on the Minshew Choo Choo until it rides off the rails.
CHARGERS over Broncos
The Broncos are two plays away from having the same record as their division opponents this week. They aren’t nearly as bad as the other 0-4 teams. But if they want to draft some top-level help for Drew Lock next year, they’ll have to keep losing. This season is probably a lost cause already.
Packers over COWBOYS
Do you think Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will even bother to wear pants for this one?
CHIEFS over Colts
The Vikings don’t travel to Kansas City for another four weeks. But since I’m going to that game too, I’m already starting to get anxious about the impending beat down that seems to be waiting for them.
Browns over 49ERS
Cleveland’s offense is totally fixed! Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield are going to take the league by storm! They’re going to stomp the overrated 49ers even though Kyle Shanahan has had two weeks to prepare! This upset pick is foolproof!
Last week: 8-7
Season so far: 40-22-1