Vikings Hoping to Bounce Back Once Again in Toughest Challenge Yet
For the first time in a month, the Vikings went to work this week with a bitter taste in their mouth. After a relatively stress-free, 4-0 October, the second half of the season began with a punch to the gut in Kansas City.
The Vikings struggled in all three phases against the Chiefs, and as a result, were forced to watch helplessly as Harrison Butker's game-winning field goal soared through the uprights. Not long after, they were on a plane back to Minnesota, thinking about missed opportunities and poor execution.
October aside, these Vikings aren't strangers to the disappointment of a tough loss. Back in the first quarter of the season, they left Green Bay and Chicago feeling much the same way they do this week. Frustrated, of course. But also motivated to figure out what went wrong and fix it.
In each of the two weeks after those early-season losses, the Vikings responded with a victory the following Sunday. The loss to the Packers was answered with a dominant win over the Raiders (who are 4-2 since then). The loss to the Bears led to a victory over the Giants and a four-game winning streak.
The Vikings are hoping for more of the same this week. A win would get them to 7-3 and would allow them to avoid their first losing streak of the season. Only, they're not facing the Raiders or Giants this week. They're heading to Dallas for a primetime showdown with the number one offense in the NFL.
"You hope you have a resilient group, and the only way you can show that is by bouncing back," Kirk Cousins said. "We've done it twice. We gotta do it again this week. This will probably be the toughest challenge we've had yet to date, against a really good football team. Great opportunity, but we gotta go do it."
There are no heads hanging at the Vikings' practice facility in Eagan this week. The players and coaches know what it takes to respond to a loss, because they've done it before. They know that the mistakes they made last Sunday are correctable, and that this team is capable of playing at a very high level.
To get there means improvement on offense by everyone from Cousins to the offensive line to play-caller Kevin Stefanski. It means analyzing what went wrong defensively on the big plays the Chiefs were able to hit. It means shoring up issues on special teams after a missed extra point and a shanked punt were critical errors in the loss.
“We use the word 'work' around here a lot," Dalvin Cook said. "That’s what we pride ourselves on, getting back to the basics, getting better. Because in those losses there were some things that we did as far as technique or just missing our assignments or just doing something that’s out of character. Flying around and working hard and getting ready for the next opponent, that’s what we’re all about."
For Stefon Diggs, the key is finding consistency. It appeared the Vikings had begun to discover that consistency in October, but last Sunday saw them regress in a number of areas. He's encouraged by the fact that the Vikings have "fighters" on the team who are passionate about righting the ship.
"For us, everything isn't going to go perfect, and when it doesn't, let's just try to go back to the drawing board to figure out the things we can do better to put us in the best position to win," Diggs said. "Last week we lost by a small margin of error, and we had a chance to win the game, so for us [it's about] just going back to looking at the things you did right...and the things you did wrong."
If the Vikings are unable to correct their mistakes this week and execute at a high level on Sunday night, they'll almost certainly lose their second in a row. The Cowboys have the best offense in the NFL by virtually every metric: yards per play, yards per game, DVOA, etc. They're the only offense in the league that ranks in the top-5 in rushing and passing yards. Defensively, their pass-rushers and linebackers are among the best in the league.
This may be the most difficult challenge facing the Vikings all season. That doesn't mean they can afford a loss. These are the types of games the Vikings need to win if they are going to prove they're better than they were last year.
"You can't pick only certain teams that you're going to beat," Cousins said. "When you're a playoff team, if you're going to be a playoff team, you have to win tough games in tough environments at some point, otherwise you're probably not getting into the playoffs. We see this week as a great opportunity to do that."
That the game will take place in the Cowboys' billion-dollar AT&T Stadium on Sunday Night Football only increases the stakes. It's a chance for Cousins to escape his primetime struggles and change the narrative of his career. It's a chance for the Vikings, as a team, to make a statement.
"I’m fired up to go play down there in that stadium," Cook said. "It should be a good event, Sunday night football, man. If you can’t get ready for that, I think you’re in the wrong sport.”