EAGAN, Minn. — When you're in a playoff spot with four games to go, of course the final month of the season is going to carry some weight.
But if it feels as if Sunday's Week 14 matchup between the Vikings and Buccaneers carries some extra juice … it's because it does.
Minnesota is 6-6 and currently occupies the seventh and final Wild Card spot in the NFC. But even as the Vikings have won five of six games, only one of those victories (at Green Bay) has come against a team with a winning record. In fact, Minnesota has a single win all season against a team currently over .500.
But the Vikings have a chance Sunday — with most of the country watching — to prove they truly belong in the playoff conversation in the NFC.
"It's getting to be that time in the season where you kind of separate the playoff teams from the rest," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. "We've got to prove through this week, and through this month, that we belong. Great opportunity for us and a great test."
Added Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer: "It's a big challenge for us. We have to start out fast … play better in the third quarter than we have in the last couple weeks … and go make some plays."
In other words, this is a measuring-stick type game against the 7-5 Buccaneers, who can restore some shine to their season after losing three of their past four games. Although Tampa Bay trails in the race for the NFC South, the Buccaneers currently hold the No. 6 seed as a Wild Card team.
A win for Tampa Bay on Sunday means it is squarely in the postseason picture, and likely has some cushion to work with over the final three games.
But if Minnesota gets a win and both teams move to 7-6, it would be the Vikings who actually climb in the NFC playoff picture.
It's December … let the fun begin.
View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Buccaneers during practice at TCO Performance Center.
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:
Withstand the pressure | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
Entering Week 14, the Vikings offense has allowed 25 sacks, which ranks 17th in the NFL. The Buccaneers defense, meanwhile, is sixth with 34 total sacks.
All week long, the Vikings have talked about being able to withstand the pressure they know is going to come from Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles and his players.
A deep dive into specific stats back up those concerns.
According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Tampa Bay ranks fifth in the league with a blitz rate of 38 percent. The analytics site also noted it is the fifth straight season a Bowles-coached defense has ranked in the top six among all NFL teams in terms of blitz rate.
But not only do the Buccaneers like to blitz, they like to do so with extra defenders. Next Gen Stats also noted that Tampa Bay has sent a max blitz (six or more defenders) on 14 percent of opponents' dropbacks in 2020, the league's fourth-highest mark.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak knows it will be an all-hands-on-deck approach to try and slow down Tampa Bay's pressure.
"Obviously, everybody knows Tampa, that's part of what they do. That's just something you got to deal with," Kubiak added. "I think the thing I've been encouraged with is for the most part when you're sitting there trying to handle pressure – the key to pressure is not having a lot of negative plays because of pressure.
"We had one the other day, a big one. We got to get rid of that," Kubiak added. "But part of facing pressure football teams is sometimes getting to the next down without causing you problems. It'll be a big deal this week because of Todd's groups."
Cousins said: "They're going to pressure the quarterback a variety of ways. They're going to obviously try to be unpredictable, very multiple in what they'll do, and they have great players who can do it."
The play Kubiak referred to is a botched handoff between Cousins and Dalvin Cook, which occurred at Jacksonville's 1-yard line.
The Vikings were able to overcome that miscue and get a win, but Minnesota has also recorded five turnovers in the past two games, with opponents scoring three defensive touchdowns in that span. Those mistakes will likely hurt the Vikings in a big way if they continue against the Buccaneers.
Minnesota also gave up four sacks against the Jaguars in Week 13, which was the highest total allowed all season. It will be up to everyone on Minnesota's offense, including the offensive line, to keep Cousins as clean as possible against a ferocious Tampa Bay defense.
Getting hot and bringing the pressure | By @LindseyMNSports
The Vikings defensive line is finding its rhythm at just the right time.
After the departure of Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph in free agency, Michael Pierce opting out due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Danielle Hunter landing on Injured Reserve for the 2020 season, Minnesota's defensive line rotation has looked quite a bit different this year. But young players have stepped up, new starters have answered the call, and they're playing well as a group.
Vikings defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo spoke with media members earlier this week about the way things are coming together.
"We started off pretty slow, but I think now we're getting hot at the right time," Odenigbo said. "The first four or five games, we were all trying to find an identity. Obviously this is a new defense, new faces, and we're all trying to complement each other, see how we rush. Now, since we've been at it for some time now, I think that's the pressure that we've seen, [and] that's what we're going to be seeing from now on. I think we've finally got it to click.
"Guys like D.J. [Wonnum], guys like Hercules [Mata'afa] are all stepping up at the right time, and now adding JB (Jordan Brailford), it's just great for the defense," Odenigbo continued. "But at the end of the day, all that stems from [Co-Defensive Coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson]. He just gets us in the right position."
Things will certainly need to be clicking on Sunday, when the Vikings face Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. Especially considering Minnesota's young secondary, getting pressure on Brady from the interior will be crucial to containing the six-time Super Bowl champ.
Do Odenigbo and his teammates have a plan in place?
"Like the saying goes, a great magician never reveals his secrets. It's kind of the same way for our pass rush plan," Odenigbo quipped. "I think we have something that, obviously they're going to do their best to stop us. But I think we're getting in a flow, getting in a rhythm, and we'll have a good plan for Sunday."
Cook, Run Game Facing Stingy Bucs | By @pcraigers
Sunday could be an instance of game recognizing game, but which will give?
The Vikings enter Week 14 ranked sixth in the NFL with 145.7 rushing yards per game to face the stingiest run defense in the NFL (74.2 yards allowed per game and 3.28 allowed per carry).
Dalvin Cook leads the NFL in touches (26.0), scrimmage yards (142.2) and rushing yards (113.6) per game.
According to Next Gen Stats from NFL Media Research, Cook's involvement on 47.3 percent of the Vikings offensive touches leads the NFL.
Some have wondered if that's too much or sustainable, but when it came time to close out the Jaguars in overtime last week, Cook and the Vikings ran on eight consecutive plays for 31 yards. He finished with 38 touches (32 rushes, six receptions) for 179 scrimmage yards. How did that feel by Wednesday?
"I feel great, actually. I'll probably need 38 more. I don't know. I feel great to be honest. I'm not pulling your coattails or nothing," Cook said. "I've got a good system that I've got set up for me to get ready to go on Sunday's. That starts right after the game. The clock starts to get my body ready to go for the next Sunday. I'm here to do whatever my team asks. If it's 38, 40, 44, whatever it is, I'm willing to do it. I'm just going to keep fighting, keep chipping away with my teammates and having fun. That's what this thing is about. Let's have some fun on Sunday."
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak expects quite a bit from Bowles' defense after its bye.
"Boy I tell you, they've been off, so they're going to be flying around very stout," Kubiak said. "They run extremely well. They set the edges with Shaquil [Barrett] and Jason [Pierre-Paul] on the other side. You've got [Ndamukong] Suh inside. They push inside and set the edges, and that makes it very, very difficult. Those linebackers run extremely well. Todd's defenses always play extremely hard. I'm so impressed with him as a coach and watching his players and how hard they play. It is a big, big challenge for us and them being so fresh, us coming off, what, a 90-play game. A lot of challenges for us this week but you know it's that time of year. Get ready to go."
What's perhaps most remarkable about Tampa Bay's defense is it's ability to pressure quarterbacks (as explained by Eric) yet be so stout against the run.
"I think it's a fine line when you think you're going to pressure the quarterback, but you've got to have gap control when you are blitzing to make sure he doesn't get out," Tampa Bay Head Coach Bruce Arians said this week. "Once [Cook] breaks it, it's usually going to the house, so we have to have great gap control [and] great discipline when we're blitzing and when we're not blitzing."
Notable Number: 25
The Vikings and Buccaneers play in separate divisions now, but the teams were rivals in the former NFC Central for 25 seasons from 1977-2001.
Minnesota won nine division titles in that span, while Tampa Bay claimed three. The Vikings went 28-19 against the Buccaneers when the two were in the same division.
Minnesota is 33-22 all-time against Tampa Bay, and has won two straight in the series.
Vikings Postgame LIVE
After every Vikings game this season, make sure to log onto the team's digital and social platforms to watch Vikings Postgame Live, a new streaming postgame show that will provide fans with highlights, postgame sound from Head Coach Mike Zimmer and players, analysis and much more.