EAGAN, Minn. — Two of the NFL's hottest teams will meet on Sunday Night Football.
The Vikings are riding the longest active win streak in the league (five games), while the Denver Broncos have won their past three, including victories over the Chiefs and Bills.
Both teams are enjoying crucial win streaks at critical parts of their respective seasons. Minnesota started the year 0-3 before winning six of its past seven. Denver also started 0-3 and lost five of its first six, including a 70-20 loss at Miami.
Despite playing without star receiver Justin Jefferson since Week 5, the Vikings became the fifth team since 1950 to win five or more games within a season despite starting three different quarterbacks during the streak.
On Sunday, the Vikings will try to win at Denver for the first time in 1999.
"It's been a good week of practice, guys are locked in and we're very much aware of the challenge it's going to be [playing in] one of the more difficult environments in the league," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "They're playing very well right now. Coach [Sean] Payton has got those guys rolling. So we're gonna have to go have one of our best efforts of the season to go get our seventh win. And the guys seem really locked in. We gotta go make it come to life on Sunday night."
Matchup to Watch: Russell Wilson versus the Vikings red zone defense
Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson's 18 passing touchdowns are tied with Kirk Cousins for third-most in the NFL.
Through 10 games, Payton and the Broncos offense have a clear formula. Payton wants to run the ball and use play-action passes to move the ball between the 20s. Then, in the red zone, he trusts Wilson to execute his scheme and protect the football.
Both are working. Wilson ranks second in touchdown to interception ratio. Eighteen of the Broncos 19 offensive touchdowns have come through the air. The Broncos lone rushing touchdown this season came on a five-yard run in Week 2.
Denver is comfortable throwing inside the 20. Wilson operates out of an empty formation (no running back in backfield) on 24.4 percent of red zone snaps, the sixth-highest rate in the league. Plus, only 40.8 percent of Denver's red zone plays have been designed runs, which ranks 24th.
Despite their red zone success, the Broncos rank 23rd in total yards per game. But Denver is accessing in-close scoring opportunities by winning the field position battle, a testament to defense and special teams.
Over their past two games, the Broncos have averaged a starting field position of their own 43.4-yard line. The next best starting field position for a team since Week 8 is the Ravens at their 34.6-yard line, on average.
By starting their drives nearly at midfield, Wilson and the Broncos only need about two first downs to enter field goal range and about 37 yards to reach the red zone.
O'Connell said the Vikings must protect the football and limit Denver punt and kick returner Marvin Mims, Jr., to offset the Broncos complementary style and eliminate their advantageous starting field position.
"It's not an opinion. They do have the best punt returner in football statistically right now," O'Connell said. "He jumps out all over the tape. He's averaging 22 yards a catch when he's playing receiver and he's explosive, [has] great vision, breaks tackles. Some of those returns that have gotten them that great starting field position."
Six Points: Memorable Week 11 Quotes
C Garrett Bradbury on expectations for Sunday Night Football in Denver:
"[All the games] are tough. It's hard to win in this league. So we're going about our normal process throughout this week, and yeah, it's going to be a physical game on Sunday. That's kind of what we're signing up for."
QB Joshua Dobbs on communication with coaches and what he suggests from past experiences:
"It's a feel. Obviously, we play different defenses, and each team is kind of built differently for how they attack offenses. So, it's a feel with [quarterbacks coach] Chris [O'Hara] and [assistant quarterbacks coach] Grant [Udinski] and K.O.C. (Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell) and, shoot, probably the entire offensive staff, as they're game planning different areas of the game plan. They'll be like, 'Hey, are you comfortable with this call? Have you run this in the past?' or, 'What concepts do you like on third down or in the red zone?' So it's a constant communication throughout the week, so that when it's installed, you're comfortable with it, the guys are comfortable with it, they can coach it the correct way so we're seeing the field the same, we're understanding the play the same, and that allows us to play quickly on Sundays."
TE T.J. Hockenson on playing through rib/oblique pain:
"I feel good. I feel a lot better than I did at this time last week, so I think there's some improvement, and I'll just continue [recovering]. It's going to be a road, but I'm just excited to continue to be out there. You've just gotta forget about it. … You have to [get used to it]. It's just one of those things you kind of forget about at some point. When you come off the field, you can obviously do your rehab and some stuff, and these guys (Vikings training staff) have done a good job with a plan for me on helping me out throughout the week and just getting me to Sunday. That's gonna continue to be the plan, and I'm going to keep going out on Sunday and having some fun."
WR Justin Jefferson on being patient while recovering from hamstring injury:
"It's frustrating. I'm not gonna lie. It's definitely tough to deal with. Every single week, you want to be out there on that field to play with your team, but it's [an injury] that's holding it back. It's definitely something where you kind of have to sit around, kind of talk to yourself about it and just say that it's going to be better in the long run – not [focusing just] on this very moment. It's definitely tough to deal with, but the teammates and the rest of the guys in this building have been doing a great job by keeping me focused and my head in the game."
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell on whether he expects Jordan Hicks to be back during the regular season:
"My hope is yes. My hope is because we were able to hopefully avoid any sort of longer-term problems with that, there's still an element of going through the healing and making sure that that goes smoothly, so things could absolutely change, but I know Jordan. When I saw him the other night, he was watching tape of the Broncos and had all his supplements lined up like it was just any other day, so I think Jordan's going to be, as soon as he can get back here, he's one of our leaders, one of the guys that our whole organization kind of thrives behind his leadership. So if he's not out there for three or four weeks, at the minimum, he's still going to be heavily involved, very similar to how I see Kirk [Cousins] in these next few weeks, as well."
LB Anthony Barr on getting up to speed on Minnesota's defense after signing to the practice squad:
"I think it's day by day, man. Just gather as much information as I can and be a sponge. A lot of these guys have been doing this for quite a while now, so I'm leaning on some of the guys that have been in the system and learning as quickly as I can."
Counting his final two games with the Cardinals and first two with the Vikings, Dobbs has scored a rushing touchdown in four consecutive games. He can become the fourth QB since 1970 with one in five consecutive games if he finds the end zone on the ground Sunday. Dobbs would join Justin Fields (six in 2022), Cam Newton (five in 2021) and Kyler Murray (five in 2020).
Hockenson enters this week with 71 receptions, which is already tied for third-most by a Vikings TE in one season behind Kyle Rudolph (83 in 2016) and Joe Senser (79 in 1981). He is the third tight end in NFL history with at least 70 catches in his team's first 10 games of a season, joining Zach Ertz (77 in 2018) and Jason Witten (73 in 2012).
View photos from the Vikings practice on Nov. 16 at the TCO Performance Center.
A quick question re: Cousins' status on IR: Is Capt. Kirk allowed to participate in the QB meeting room even though he is on the IR list?
Dobbs is doing an awesome job. But I'm curious about Kirk's ability to support and advise Dobbs as he moves forward.
— Jim Connell (Lifelong Vikes fan since 1960)
The answer to Jim's question, which was sent Wednesday, was answered by Kirk himself on Friday. Cousins spoke to media members after O'Connell talked.
He described the opportunity to spend time in the quarterbacks room, as well as the support he appreciates in the early stages of his recovery.
Cousins is allowed to participate in those position meetings and he also has been reviewing a few things at O'Connell's request and sharing his thoughts and experiences.
It's a tremendous help to have someone so well-versed in the offense and with so much NFL experience as the Vikings have turned to Dobbs, who is well-seasoned but has far less NFL game experience.
Additionally, it's been great to see Kirk around the building, interacting with teammates, and joining forces with them to serve a Thanksgiving meal this past week at The Salvation Army.
With all the injury and non-production in the running backs room, it's as if DeWayne McBride doesn't even exist. You never hear him mentioned. Did we draft him just to be on the practice squad? Why don't we give him a try before the playoffs to see what he can contribute? I have a feeling he's the best RB we have left that's not injured. Put him in and give our opponents defense the most yards-after-contact RB from college to try and tackle.
— Bruce Dylla
A couple of things that are always behind the scenes/a bit under the radar with running backs are their ability to keep as much of the offense in play as possible and their ability to pick up blitzes.
Alexander Mattison does the first and the second. He had a couple of incredibly impressive pick ups against the Saints before he left the game in the concussion protocol.
You are correct in that we haven't heard much about McBride. It's not a slight on his game, but he was a seventh-round pick and is being developed like some of the other younger players on this roster.
Defenses have been able to stymie Minnesota's ground attack in the absence of Jefferson and they might send more resources toward the passing game when he returns.
Another wild card in the equation is the running threat presented by Dobbs, which we've seen boost the team rushing stat line in the past two weeks.
Was a very good weekend with exception to the injuries. Starting to be impressed by the Viking management. The Dobbs trade, T.J.'s extension. The development of the younger player. Keeping the veterans that they could budget for and get max benefit from. Maybe most important: the choice of the HC. Kevin O'Connell, like last season, deserves consideration for HC of the Year. Denver could be a "trap" game for most teams. Faith in the team culture he has created. Just a bit worried about the altitude and weather variable.
Biased, but the stats back. [Hockenson is] the overall best TE in the NFL. #87, reincarnation of a real Viking :)? The Swedish/Norwegian surname. The toughness, determination, attitude … looks like a Viking. Wondering how most DC have been trying to stop T.J.? Will be interesting in how they plan to neutralize T.J. when J.J. and K.J. are healthy. Didn't KO as OC of the Rams run 11 personnel more often than most NFL teams? Guessing KO is smiling with the option to run some very interesting 11 personnel. T.J., J.J., K.J., Addison. Solid O-line and mobile QB. If everyone gets healthy and stays healthy this will be a very interesting back half of the season.
— Noel in Bayfield, Wisconsin
I think the word "warrior" was used to describe Hockenson after last week's game for the way he grinded through and delivered catch after catch, knowing the ends of plays would not feel good to the ribs injury he battled through. Viking is already the team name, but he personified the relentlessness that the team tries to pair the logo with the identity.
O'Connell maintained a positive culture through all the early season turnovers, and his leadership is definitely worthy of being in the mention for the Coach of the Year award. He is now 19-8 in regular-season games and has a chance to be the fastest Vikings coach to 20 victories (Dennis Green reached the mark in his 32nd game).
The Broncos have had a rocky season, as well, but they've started taking away the football at an alarming rate. It will be so important for the Vikings to protect the football on Sunday.
I don't have a question, just a shout-out to one of my favorite players, who never seems to get recognition for ballin' out every single game. Diggin' it out in the trenches.
Harrison Phillips. He's taking on the double teams, allowing Flores' defense to attack from every angle with edge rushers, LBs and safeties. All while on a pace for over 100 tackles. Also has 2 sacks.
He is playing at a Pro Bowl level and just might be the best acquisition of this new regime.
— Les Herbison
"Voice of the Vikings" Paul Allen would agree with you about "Horrible Harry" having such a strong season. I've caught multiple interviews in which he has sung Phillips' praises with that velvety voice. The interior defensive linemen, leaning on Phillips' for a high percentage of snaps and his leadership and playmaking, have really been an important part of Minnesota's defensive surge.
Flores has been so creative with the ways that this team attacks instead of reacts.