EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings were vindicated last week, with their effort and hard work resulting in a win after back-to-back close losses.
Now, Minnesota needs to do it again at home. And this time, the challenge is one of the league's most complete and talented teams.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer knows the task that lies ahead.
"They have a lot of very high picks. I think three No. 1s in the draft," Zimmer said. "Very physical offensively. Defensively, very fast. Really good front four. [They] do a good job with special teams.
"Need our fans to be nice and loud again this week," Zimmer added. "It should be a heck of a ball game."
The Vikings currently sit at 1-2 on the young season and still have three-plus months of football to go after Week 4.
But there is also no denying that Sunday's game could be a turning point in Minnesota's season.
A win gets the Vikings to 2-2 and a .500 record, a notable accomplishment after an 0-2 start. If the Vikings can get a victory at home, they can almost reset a bit and look to really get some momentum going.
A loss, of course, would drop Minnesota to 1-3. And while the season wouldn't be over, it would set up the fact the Vikings would have to continue to dig themselves out of a second-straight, early-season hole.
Here are the weekly playoff odds, as provided by NFL Media Research.
Teams that opened 2-2 from 1990-2020 made the playoffs 36.5 percent of the time, while 1-3 squads did so 14.2 percent of the time. (Note: those were for 16-game seasons).
There is plenty of familiarity in this one, as coaches on both sides know each other's strengths and weaknesses. That includes the Zimmer and Browns Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, who was an assistant with the Vikings for more than a decade.
But when kickoff comes at noon (CT) Sunday, all that matters is a win.
"I'm not surprised that he's done a great job with that. I get it," said Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson. "He was here a long time, and people want to make it about Kevin, but it's not about Kevin. It's about his players. That's what it's about. And every week in this league, you run across someone that you've had close contact with and that you've coached with before.
"We're trying to win. I have a great deal of respect for Kevin. I love him. But I want to beat him on Sunday," Patterson added. "And I understand, it's not about him. It's about his players. And for us to win the game, that's what we have to understand."
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 3:
Try to rattle Baker | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
The Vikings defense will need to be on its toes for the third straight week.
Much like Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield is also an elusive threat who makes opponents defend every inch of the field. He's also one of the three former No. 1 overall picks on Cleveland's roster that Zimmer mentioned above.
"No, I don't think he's risky at all. I think he gets to his reads and gets the ball out pretty quick," Zimmer said. "When it's not there, he's a scrambler. He'll take off and go.
"You know, a lot of quarterbacks will come inside the pocket or outside the pocket. With him, you don't really know, so we're going to have to do a good job," Zimmer added. "Hopefully we get the routes covered and then we've got to worry about him scrambling."
Through three games, Mayfield has thrown for 780 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. And he's completed 73.8 percent of his passes, which ranks fifth in the league. (Kirk Cousins is fourth at 73.9 percent).
Still, the hope is that the Vikings (and their loud home crowd) can rattle Mayfield a bit and force a few errant throws that end up with the defense.
"Baker's definitely a gunslinger," said Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson. "He believes in his arm, he trusts his arm, he trusts his guys, and you know he's been making some big plays throughout this year.
It's going to depend on our defensive linemen getting to him early, making his feet happy a little," Peterson added.
Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said: "Hopefully we can get some pressure in his face and make him make some bad decisions and force him to make some throws that we'll end up with."
Will Cousins Keep Clicking? | By @LindseyMNSports
"He's been playing lights out … He's been ballin'."
The above was a quote by Dalvin Cook about Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. And Cook isn't wrong.
Through the first three regular-season games, Cousins is 88-of-119 passing for 918 yards, eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. His current passer rating is 118.3, nearly 11 points higher than his career best in a season (107.4 in 2019).
"I think he's playing outstanding. But not only that, he's playing with a lot of confidence," Zimmer said following last week's win over Seattle. "I really appreciate [his leadership] lately. It's been so much better, something he wanted to work on. He's done a great job with that. He's very confident where he's throwing the football. He's very confident with these receivers. I think the offensive line has helped him do some of those things, as well."
Cousins and the offensive line have a stout challenge ahead of them in the Browns defense, which last weekend totaled an incredible 9.0 sacks against the Bears. In order to ensure the offense keeps humming the way it has been, Cousins will need to stay clean in the pocket and likely get the ball out quickly to targets.
"You're just very aware of the pass rush and of your emphasis on not letting that happen two weeks in a row," Cousins said. "I know they're going to come in here planning to get after us, so we've got to have a great plan to be able to resist it."
Bigger and bolder but within the defense | By @pcraigers
When Dalvin Cook missed last week, several Vikings offensive players seemed to lift their games. Whether it was a career-high in scrimmage yards (171) by Alexander Mattison, a lights-out day of throwing and catching led by Kirk Cousins and company or pass and run blocking by the offensive line.
The Vikings have a long list of players on the injury report, which grew with the addition of Michael Pierce Thursday. The nose tackle who is 6-1 in previous games against the Browns as a member of the Ravens, was listed as questionable.
"The Juggernaut" would be a good player to bring to a potential battle of the backfields. If he's unable to go, Minnesota will have big shoes to fill against the NFL's second-ranked rushing offense (174.7 yards per game).
Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer explained how Stefanski has continued to evolve his scheme, which includes more gap runs and double-team blocks by Browns offensive linemen than the Vikings, who preferred more zone-blocking than anything else.
"Obviously, we have an idea of some of the things he likes and some of the things he doesn't, but I think — even the last two years, he's really evolved his offense," Adam Zimmer said. "That's a sign of a good coach."
He called Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt "very good backs" and noted the physicality that each runs with. Chubb ranks third in the NFL with 262 yards, and Hunt put up 155 scrimmage yards (81 rushing, 74 receiving) against Chicago in Week 3.
In order to do well, Vikings defenders must bring big and bold versions of themselves but also understand the importance of playing within the defense and knowing where the help is coming from.
"It's hard to bring one of those guys down with just one guy so we're emphasizing we've got to get 11 hats on the ball every play and really emphasize, 'Don't let these guys push the pile forward on us.' "
Notable Number: 1 of 5 games
A pair of the league's top units will share the field Sunday.
Minnesota's offense currently ranks third in the league in terms of yards per game with 425.0.
But Cleveland will counter with a defense that ranks — yep, third overall — with 248.7 yards allowed per game.
The Vikings-Browns game is one of a whopping five games that feature a top-10 offense against a top-10 defense in Week 4. The rest are as follows:
Baltimore (No. 4 offense) at Denver (No. 2 defense)
Dallas (No. 5 offense) at Carolina (No. 1 defense)
Kansas City (No. 6 offense) at Philadelphia (No. 7 defense)
Tampa Bat (No. 8 offense) at New England (No. 5 defense)