Entering a game at .500 for the first time since Week 1, the 6-6 Vikings are ready to start the fourth quarter of the 2020 regular season and make a run at a second consecutive trip to the postseason.
The quest is scheduled to begin at noon (CT) with a visit to the 7-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This will be Minnesota's first visit to its former NFC Central rival (1977-2001) since 2014 when Anthony Barr forced a fumble and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown in overtime to beat a squad with Mike Glennon at quarterback.
Barr is out for the season, and Tom Brady (more on him in a moment) is now the Bucs QB. Coincidentally, an interception of Glennon by Harrison Smith last week helped the Vikings defeat the Jaguars in overtime.
Minnesota's win added to the significance of this one between teams that enter Week 14 sixth (Bucs) and seventh (Vikings) in the NFC Standings, which would claim the final two playoff spots. Check out a breakdown here.
Here are five storylines to watch this week, as well as a link below to the game preview by the Vikings PR staff and a list of connections between the teams.
1. Tracking calves
All eyes will be on the status of Eric Kendricks and Jeff Gladney, particularly their calves.
Kendricks, the All-Pro linebacker who has led the Vikings in tackles five consecutive seasons and has recorded three interceptions (all in the red zone) since Week 9, was added to the injury report with a calf injury Thursday. He tried to play on Sunday against Jacksonville but appeared to aggravate it in warm-ups.
Gladney, the rookie corner who played 95 percent or more of Minnesota's defensive snaps in each game from Week 3 to Week 12, left last week's contest with a calf injury suffered while making a tackle that helped set up a key safety.
Both players are important, particularly in increasing what Head Coach Mike Zimmer might be able to call on third downs against Brady. The 21-season vet has spread the ball around with eight different Buccaneers recording 20 or more catches so far this season.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Buccaneers.
2. All-decade team?
The past decade was prolific to say the least for several Tampa Bay offensive players.
In regular-season games from 2010-19, Brady ranked second with 316 touchdown passes and fourth with 41,962 net passing yards.
Running back LeSean McCoy's 10,434 rushing yards led all players during the decade, and his 69 rushing touchdowns ranked second behind former Viking Adrian Peterson's 71.
And through the air? Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to reunite with Brady, led all players with 79 receiving scores and ranked 15th overall with 7,861 receiving yards (second among tight ends).
Newcomer Antonio Brown ranked second during the decade with 75 touchdown catches and 11,263 receiving yards.
While Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette have carried the load in the ground game, and Chris Godwin and Mike Evans have the biggest receiving numbers, a Vikings defense flush with youngsters will see several players they "grew up" watching. This deep in the season, it's hard to imagine that rookies would "stargaze," but it's a likely point of conversation.
3. Pocket protectors
The Vikings past two opponents have ramped up pressure on Minnesota's offensive line and walloped Kirk Cousins.
Carolina recorded 2.0 sacks and nine quarterback hits, and Jacksonville sacked Cousins four times, boosting its season sacks total to 15. The Jaguars were credited with 14 hits on the QB by press box statisticians.
To his credit, and probably an underrated component of last week's win, Cousins hung tough and delivered impressive passes in the second half.
The Vikings offensive line and protection unit will need to be on point against a Bucs defense that has 34 sacks and ranks ninth in the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-play percentage of 7.46. Minnesota's offense ranks 22nd, having allowed a sacks-per-pass-play percentage of 6.89.
4. Resolute with the run?
Dalvin Cook powered his way through an ankle injury suffered in Week 12 to run the ball 32 times for 120 yards, including on eight consecutive carries for 31 yards during the game-winning drive.
He also added six receptions for 59 yards on nine targets. That's 41 times that the ball went his direction (38 touches) out of Minnesota's 85 offensive plays, a hefty workload to say the least.
Cook's yards per carry (3.75) was the third time in four games that he had averaged that or less per run, but Minnesota has been resolute in running the ball.
The Vikings average 4.87 yards per carry, which ranks fifth this season. The Buccaneers run defense, however, is the stingiest in the NFL, allowing just 3.28 yards per carry and 74.2 rush yards per game.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
5. Red zone comparisons
This game will feature a pair of players that rank third (Adam Thielen) and fourth (Evans) in receiving touchdowns this season.
Thielen has a career-best 12, and Evans enters the game with 11 (he had 12 as a rookie in 2014 and a dozen more in 2016).
Both have been hard to stop in the red zone.
Eleven of Thielen's scores have been on plays snapped inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and nine of Evans' have been in the red zone.
Thielen (listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds) has done his damage with short-area quickness, precise routes and a couple of clutch one-handers. Evans (6-5, 231) is equipped to utilize his physicality to big-body smaller defenders, either shy of the goal line on a screen or coming down with a fade. He's also been savvy in finding holes when opponents play zone.
Buccaneers WR Tyler Johnson starred at Minneapolis North, leading the Polars to an appearance in the Class A title game as a quarterback and defensive back. Johnson set numerous Gophers records in four seasons at the University of Minnesota, including career receiving yards (3,305) and touchdowns (33) before his selection in the fifth round.
Tampa Bay T Joe Haeg is from Lake Shore, Minnesota, and attended Brainerd High School before playing at North Dakota State.
Buccaneers rookie safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., is the son of Vikings Legend Antoine Winfield, who locked down the nickel position for the Vikings from 2004-12 and earned three consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl (2008-10).
Vikings receivers coach Andrew Janocko began his NFL coaching career as an offensive assistant with the Buccaneers (2012-13).
Minnesota long snapper Andrew DePaola played his first three pro seasons (2014-16) for Tampa Bay.
Buccaneers assistant coach Tom Moore was born in Owatonna and attended high school in Rochester. He worked two stints as Gophers offensive coordinator in the 1970s and was assistant head coach of the Vikings from 1990-93.
Tampa Bay cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross guided the Vikings secondary from 2003-05.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer overlapped in Dallas with Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles and defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers.
Bowles previously worked with Vikings tight ends coach Brian Pariani (49ers in 1991) and overlapped with Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson, Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu with the Browns a decade later.
Rodgers played for the Steelers when Vikings Senior Defensive Assistant Dom Capers was with Pittsburgh. He overlapped as a coach in Dallas with Zimmer and in Miami with Maalouf.
Maalouf and Vikings assistant defensive backs coach Roy Anderson worked with Tampa Bay Head Coach Bruce Arians and Assistant Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator Harold Goodwin in 2012 in Indianapolis.
Maalouf and Anderson also worked with Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and offensive line coach Joe Gilbert while with the Colts. Maalouf and Christensen later worked together with Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones while in Miami, overlapping with part of Bucs DT Ndamukong Suh's career. Suh was a teammate of Vikings QB Sean Mannion with the Rams in 2018.
Capers and Tampa Bay Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong worked together at the Dolphins.
Polamalu's time with Jacksonville overlapped with part of Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich's career as a quarterback.
Tampa Bay specialists coach Chris Boniol played for the Cowboys during Zimmer's first three seasons in Dallas. Boniol helped coach Vikings kicker Dan Bailey in his first three pro seasons in Dallas (2011-13).
Buccaneers LB Shaquil Barrett was previously with the Broncos, along with Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, Offensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Rick Dennison, Pariani, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak and assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher.
Dennison overlapped with Tampa Bay RB LeSean McCoy in Buffalo (2017) and DT Steve McLendon with the New York Jets (2018).
Vikings WR Tajaé Sharpe and Bucs K Ryan Succop teamed together with the Titans. Succop also overlapped with Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer when they were with the Chiefs.
Vikings DT Shamar Stephen and Bucs S Andrew Adams teamed at Connecticut.
Minnesota RB Ameer Abdullah and Tampa Bay LB Lavonte David were at Nebraska together. Vikings CB Chris Jones and Bucs DL Khalil Davis are also former Huskers teammates.
Vikings quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak coached receivers at Texas A&M when Mike Evans played for the Aggies.
Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins teamed with Tampa Bay DL William Gholston at Michigan State.
Vikings WR Dan Chisena and Bucs WR Chris Godwin overlapped at Penn State.
Minnesota DT Armon Watts and Tampa Bay DL Jeremiah Ledbetter were on the same d-line at Arkansas.
Vikings TE Tyler Conklin and Bucs CB Sean Murphy-Bunting teamed at Central Michigan.
Minnesota T Rashod Hill and Tampa Bay DL Rakeem Nuñez-Roches played together at Southern Mississippi.
Vikings WR Justin Jefferson and Bucs LB Devin White overlapped at LSU.
Minnesota DT Jaleel Johnson and Tampa Bay DL Anthony Nelson teamed at Iowa.