Clinch-chasing Vikings put rebound ability to test vs. Colts

Published 4:30 pm Thursday, December 15, 2022

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MINNEAPOLIS — There’s a connectivity and resiliency these Minnesota Vikings have crafted and harvested, helping put them on the brink of a division title despite being cumulatively outscored by their opponents.

Time for another test of that character.

After allowing 400-plus yards for a franchise-record fifth straight game in a defeat last week at Detroit, the Vikings (10-3) will take another crack at clinching when they host Indianapolis (4-8-1) on Saturday. The NFC North crown will be theirs with a win, or a loss by the Lions.

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Though the Vikings were far more competitive than in earlier setbacks against Philadelphia and Dallas, the loss in Detroit further external doubts about whether their defense is strong enough for a deep run through the playoffs.

“Everybody’s kind of on them at this moment, so I feel like they’ve got a lot to prove,” wide receiver Justin Jefferson said.

So, is the art of bouncing back an actual ability a team can possess, like scoring touchdowns in the red zone or consistently rushing the passer? That’s up for debate.

“It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, we’ve done that before, so we have a reputation for doing that, so we’ll lean on that.’ I don’t believe in that. I think you’ve got to strap it up every week,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “I don’t think the Colts really care what happened last week or what’s happening next week.”

What’s clear is the environment implemented by first-year coach Kevin O’Connell has driven some measure of success, considering that largely the same collection of players had a 15-18 record over the previous two seasons and the Vikings this year are the first NFL team to win at least 10 of their first 13 games with a negative point differential (313-312).

“It’s about the process with which we go about the week, never being in denial of reality,” O’Connell said. “The important thing is continuing to attack each week with the emphasis on what it’s going to take to win this week, and that may involve a lot of corrections and things from previous weeks or the previous game. But ultimately that’s what we try to do, just be consistent in that and make sure we’re very much accountable for what we do.”

Staying the course
Colts interim coach Jeff Saturday contemplated lineup changes during the bye last week, but quarterback Matt Ryan stayed the starter despite three interceptions and a lost fumble in a 54-19 loss to the Cowboys.

Ryan has an NFL-worst 18 turnovers this season, but Super Bowl 52 MVP Nick Foles — who beat the Vikings for the NFC championship five years ago with the Eagles — will remain as the backup.

With 125 more yards, Ryan — who was in the same 2008 draft class as fellow quarterback O’Connell — will be the eighth player in history with 3,000 passing yards in 13 straight seasons.

“There’s part of his game that has to improve, and we talked about that with a number of different guys,” Saturday said. “If we’re going to win, we need Matt playing his ‘A’ game. That’s my expectation for him. He’s mentally tough.”

Getting off the ground
The Vikings netted 22 rushing yards on 17 carries against the Lions, the second time in their last three games they’ve averaged 2.5 yards or fewer per attempt. They’re eager for a blocking boost from the return of left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who missed three games with a concussion.

“He’s as good as he wants to be,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “The upside and the potential of him being an All-Pro and a superstar tackle in this league is right there for him. Just keep putting in that work and just keep being him.”

Catch him if you can
Jefferson has a league-leading 1,500 receiving yards and a legitimate opportunity to break the all-time single-season record set by Calvin Johnson (1,964) in 2012. He’s just 23, in his third year, but he said he sees a higher level still he can reach.

“That’s unbelievable to say, ain’t it? But I feel like there’s always a ‘better’ that I can be,” Jefferson said. “I feel like I can catch the ball better. I feel like I can have route running better. There’s always room for improvement in my game.”

More of gilmore
Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley wouldn’t give any hints about the plan for Jefferson, but this much is clear: cornerback Stephon Gilmore needs to play a key role. The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts this season, his healthiest since winning the award with New England.

He’s fully aware of the challenge of covering Jefferson.

“He’s fast, he’s shifty, he’s great at the catch point,” Gilmore said. “He’s a great receiver. Kirk Cousins is playing good ball, too, so they’ve got a great offense. It’ll be a big matchup for us.”