Vikings must get back to winning formula for crucial stretch of season

EAGAN, Minn. -- Some notable parallels can be drawn from the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 9 loss at Kansas City to the way the Vikings suffered their previous defeat more than a month earlier in Chicago.

The offense beat itself in similar fashion in both outings. Minnesota wanted to run the ball in both games but couldn’t. The offensive line struggled to sustain and finish blocks, which often led to quarterback Kirk Cousins misfiring under pressure, going 0-for-9 under duress against the Chiefs -- a career worst in a 26-23 loss.

In those situations, Cousins often looked for the quick checkdown instead of finding an open receiver downfield, missed opportunities to create explosive plays and get the Vikings out of third-and-long purgatory. Cousins' job was made more difficult without wide receiver Adam Thielen, whose status for Week 10 is uncertain after re-injuring the hamstring in his right leg in the first quarter on Sunday. But the Vikings got a mere one catch out of Stefon Diggs and couldn’t get others involved, particularly when Kansas City proved it didn’t consider running back Dalvin Cook to be much of a threat as a rusher.

Against the Chiefs, it appeared the 6-3 Vikings forgot everything they had learned the four weeks prior about what makes this offense work. Cousins, who led the NFL from Weeks 5-8 in completion percentage and yards per attempt, completed 50% of his throws at a dismal 5.79 yards per attempt against the Chiefs with a career-worst 12 overthrows for incompletions.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said the Vikings didn’t help Cousins enough in the loss, and it’s far simpler than the defense allowing four plays of 30-plus yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run by Damien Williams that left Zimmer appearing embarrassed when dissecting the play on Monday.

"I don’t know that I’ve ever given up a run that long in my life," Zimmer said.

In the first half of the season, Minnesota showed that it is good enough to be a playoff team as long as the offense sticks to its outside zone rushing attack and play-action passes.

Beyond the defense’s shortcomings in Kansas City, which certainly deserve a share of the blame, the Vikings' struggles boil down to getting away from what they have done best.

Cousins was 4 of 10 passing for 36 yards using play-action. All of Cook’s 71 rushing yards came after contact, forcing him to get creative because of the Vikings' inability to create movement in the run game. It was the first time this season that Minnesota failed to crack 100 yards rushing.

While the Chiefs might have saved their season in Week 9, this could be a game the Vikings regret as one that hurt their playoff hopes.

A loss to an AFC team helps when it comes to potential tiebreakers, but a win over Kansas City would have essentially put Minnesota in a tie with Green Bay. The Vikings are seeded sixth, making them the second wild card team in the NFC, but retaining that position or overtaking the Packers, who also lost to an AFC opponent (Los Angeles Chargers) in Week 9, for the division title, is no small task.

Minnesota’s stretch from Weeks 9-13 could end up defining its season. The Vikings travel to Dallas for a Sunday night game against the 5-3 Cowboys, a team that can’t afford to lose more NFC games. The Seahawks are one position above the Vikings and will play host to them on Dec. 2 in Seattle, a place where Minnesota faltered in embarrassing fashion last season.

Beyond wanting to be more than a team that makes a first-round exit in January, the Vikings need to prove they have what it takes to get there in the first place.

The Vikings desperately need a win in Dallas or Seattle to gain some ground against other NFC contenders and hold on to their spot in the postseason. A win over a contender might prove to the Vikings that Cousins can indeed play on this stage, because the mediocre teams Minnesota beat up on in its four-game win streak weren't at the level of competition in January.

It would be a confidence boost for Cousins, who is 0-10-1 in games in which the Vikings trail in the fourth quarter and has yet to win a playoff game in his eight-year career.

Losses to either or both Seattle and Dallas puts Minnesota on track to be in a similar situation as last year, with everything coming down to a Week 17 home game against the Bears for a shot at the playoffs. The Vikings lost that game to finish 8-7-1 and miss the playoffs.

The easiest way to prevent that is by learning from what plagued them offensively in their past two losses during an upcoming stretch that will define how far the Vikings go in 2019.