Four things the Vikings should have learned from watching wild card weekend

Four things the Vikings should have learned from watching wild card weekend
Unlike a year ago, the Minnesota Vikings were on their couches for the NFL’s Super Wild Card weekend, watching the Texans, Chiefs, Packers, Lions, Bills and Buccaneers advance.

So what did the Vikings learn in watching the six games? Here are four possibilited

Abandoning the running game is not an option

Mike Zimmer’s love of running the football brought complaints from Vikings fans who wanted him to open up the offense. Kevin O’Connell has done that in his first two seasons as Vikings’ coach and play-caller, relying on the passing game and abandoning the run at times.

In retrospect, Zimmer’s critics should have made it clear that what they really wanted was a coach who saw the benefit in marrying the run and pass so they could complement each other.

Jordan Love had a fantastic game (16-of-21 for 272 yards and three touchdowns) in the Packers’ 48-32 victory on Sunday in Dallas, but he was aided by the fact that Green Bay also rushed for 143 yards on 33 carries. Aaron Jones gained 118 yards on 21 attempts and had three touchdowns.

Postseason games might not always be played in poor conditions — the Cowboys stadium, for instance, has a retractable roof — but the physical style of play we see in January means there is often a need to establish the run and try to overpower your opponent up front.

The Buffalo Bills, who beat the Steelers 31-17 on Monday, are an example of a team that is relying on the run more now than they did a year ago. The Bills finished seventh in rushing in the NFL in 2022 and 2023, and their per-game average actually dropped from 139.5 yards to 130.1.

What changed was the Bills’ commitment to the ground game. A year ago, they were 20th in the NFL with 430 carries in the regular season, including a team-leading 177 by running back Devin Singletary. This season they ranked fifth in the NFL with 512 total carries, including 237 by running back James Cook. Quarterback Josh Allen’s scrambling ability helps, but he had 13 fewer rushing attempts this season.

The Vikings, meanwhile, have been 28th each of the past two years in carries, and they went from 404 rushing attempts in 2022 to 393 in 2023. The Vikings run game finished 29th in the NFL, averaging only 91.4 yards per game with Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler getting much of the work, but what playoff football teaches us is that giving up on the run is not an option.

The onus is now on O’Connell to have more patience with the run in 2024, and for general manager Kwesi-Adofo Mensah to make sure the Vikings have the correct personnel to make their ground game a consistent threat.

If the Vikings find the right formula, their passing game will become that much more dangerous because opponents will have to respect their run game.

Beware of the NFC North

It was no secret that power shifted in the NFC North this season as the Lions won their first division title since 1993 with a 12-5 record. But after watching the Lions beat the Rams and the Packers destroy the Cowboys, you now have to wonder where the Vikings rank in the North?

The Vikings (7-10) finished third in the division because they held a tie-breaker over the 7-10 Chicago Bears, but it’s likely the Vikings will be picked to finish last in the division when many preseason predictions come out.

Chicago went into a complete rebuild in 2022, finishing 3-14, but were a much-improved team this year and hold the first and ninth overall picks in the upcoming draft. The top selection came in Chicago’s trade with Carolina last year that enabled the Panthers to take quarterback Bryce Young with the first pick in the draft.

The Packers, meanwhile, appeared to have taken a step back with Love in his first season as the starting quarterback, but that quickly changed. Green Bay was 2-5 after a 24-10 loss to the Vikings in late October at Lambeau Field, but won seven of their final 10 games to grab the last playoff berth in the NFC.

The Packers still have questions on defense that need to be addressed, but have they hit on a third consecutive franchise quarterback? That has to be a concern for the Vikings.

An age old question at QB

As the Vikings make their decision on whether to bring back Kirk Cousins at quarterback, it’s worth pointing out that all of the winning QBs over the weekend had one thing in common.


Not one of them has celebrated his 30th birthday, and the same is true when it comes to the starters for the two teams that had byes, Baltimore and San Francisco.


Why is this important? Because Cousins will turn 36 in August and is coming off a season-ending Achilles’ injury that figures to make the veteran even more immobile than he has been in recent years.


The winning playoff quarterbacks and their ages are as follows: Texans’ C.J. Stroud is 22, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is 28, Green Bay’s Love is 25, Detroit’s Jared Goff is 29, Buffalo’s Allen is 27 and Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield is 28. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson just turned 27 and the 49ers’ Brock Purdy is 24. Because Goff is close to 30, it’s worth pointing out he won’t hit that milestone until next October.


We have seen a guy like Tom Brady keep playing and having success into his 40s, a guy like Joe Flacco (39) sign off his couch and help the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs and we know that Aaron Rodgers (40) plans to return to the New York Jets next season after suffering an Achilles’ injury in his first game with the Jets.


But the playoff success stories this season are anything but greybeards and, in the case of Stroud, Love and Mayfield, they are providing victories for a relatively small amount of money.


The Vikings hold the 11th pick in this year’s NFL draft and many believe that selection will be used on a quarterback. There also are many who are concerned about what will happen if that guy doesn’t deliver.


But let’s imagine a world where the Vikings hit on a young QB. Maybe at the 11th pick, or maybe by trading up to try to grab a guy like North Carolina’s Drake Maye or LSU’s Jayden Daniels.


Stroud went second-overall to the Texans last season and threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday in a 45-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns. He also had a 157.2 passer rating — a perfect mark is 158.3. This isn’t to say that Stroud is a future Hall of Famer and it’s not to say that Young is a bust after a tough rookie season.


But the Vikings have to be willing to take a chance on a quarterback and that doesn’t mean an expensive veteran from the free agent market. Yes, the draft pick could turn out to be Christian Ponder, and such a pick might get Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell fired.


But they weren’t hired to embrace the status quo and take the safe route, they were hired to find the talent that will get the Vikings to a Super Bowl. Playing it safe, won’t get that done.


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