EAGAN, Minn. — The margin between winning and losing in the NFL is razor thin.
And you don't need me to tell you that no team exemplifies that belief more than the Vikings, who have seen nearly all of their games come down to the wire in 2021.
Through eight games, Minnesota sits at 3-5, with seven total games being decided by seven points or fewer. No other team has been involved in more heart-pounding tilts so far this season.
Minnesota has suffered heartbreaking defeats, with four losses by four points or fewer. The Vikings have also squeaked out a pair of narrow victories along the way, too.
Yet as the second half of the season looms, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer knows it's time for his team to buck the trend and find a way to turn the close losses into wins.
"Hey, you know, this team fights, OK? They compete like crazy. We had 98 plays on defense last week, but they fought to the very, very end," Zimmer said. "We've had, of the eight games, seven out of the eight have come down to the last play of the game, so I've never seen that in my entire career, have that many games come down to the last play of the game.
"We've got to figure out how not to let it come down to the last play of the game, number one, and when we do, we've got to figure out a way to get it done," Zimmer continued. "I promise you our coaches, and it's my responsibility that it's coming down to the last part of the game, but the players are playing their rear ends off, and we as coaches, we're trying to figure out how can we put them in these situations, and unfortunately they're all a little bit different.
"Just different scenarios … we're trying to work through all of them so we can start winning these games," Zimmer added. "We haven't won them yet. We've had a little bit of the injuries and COVID and things like that, and we've just got to overcome it. But as long as we keep fighting, good things will happen."
Minnesota wasn't given a break by the schedule makers, with a trip to Los Angeles following last weekend's road game in Baltimore. But Vikings players know that the fight must continue, even as frustration builds with so many tough losses.
"It's getting old, the talk about that," said wide receiver Adam Thielen.
Justin Jefferson said: "We've just got to find a way to get over that hump. It doesn't have to be close. Just putting points on the board, not being conservative, just running up the score."
Everson Griffen added: "Anything to win this game, we need to win."
The Chargers are 5-3 and atop the AFC West, but Los Angeles has been in its fair share of tight games, too. The Chargers have played six games decided by six points or fewer, and they are 4-2 in such contests.
Given the track record of these teams this season, perhaps Sunday's game also comes down to the final few minutes or overtime.
If so, the Vikings will need to find a way to turn the tide on the West Coast.
"We just have to find a way to win a game," said Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson. "And then once you win a game, you win another one. And you start to stack them.
"You have to win the first one first, before you can stack them," Patterson added.
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 10:
Be prepared on 4th downs | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
A week ago, Minnesota's defense couldn't get off the field on fourth downs as Baltimore went a perfect 3-for-3 in those situations.
Zimmer and the Vikings are expecting plenty of aggressiveness this week, too.
"Yeah, I mean, they went for it 20 times on fourth down," Zimmer said of the Chargers offense. "Fourth-and-7 on the 40-yard line, on their own 16-yard line, own 20-yard line … they've done it several times.
"They're going to go for it on fourth down," Zimmer added.
Zimmer may have exaggerated a bit on the total tries, although not by much. (Los Angeles has gone for it 17 times on fourth downs this season, tied for the fourth-most in the league).
But you can bet the Vikings will be wary of the Chargers gutsy calls, even before fourth down.
"We have to look at it like if it's third-and-long, we have to cut the yardage down by about four yards," Zimmer said. "So if it's third-and-13, we're playing third-and-9.
"Each part is a little bit different. You tend to understand they're probably going to go for it so you anticipate you'll have four downs to try to get the first down," Zimmer later added. "But I think against Philly, they didn't punt at all. They've only punted 25 times or something."
Linebacker Nick Vigil, who played for the Chargers in 2020, added: "From what we've seen on film, they go for it a lot. They're pretty aggressive, they want to score points. So, yeah, we've just got to keep them out of those fourth-and-short situations if we can."
The Chargers have converted on 11 of their 17 fourth-down tries, a success rate of 64.71 percent that ranks sixth in the league.
Los Angeles has been extra efficient on the fourth-and-short plays Vigil references. The Chargers are 6-of-7 when they run the ball on fourth-and-2 or less, and they've hit on 50 percent of passes thrown on fourth-and-4 or shorter.
Minnesota's defense has allowed the opposition to convert on 8-of-12 tries on fourth downs this season. That 66.67 percent success rate ranks 27th in the league.
"People are a lot more aggressive now it seems like. It's been just recently, really," Zimmer said. "I think you have to have confidence in the fourth down plays you're running.
"But if they don't get it, there's a lot of pressure on the other defense, too, if they give up the ball," Zimmer added.
View photos of Vikings players from practice on Nov. 11 at the TCO Performance Center.
Emphasis on stopping Austin Ekeler | By @LindseyMNSports
Austin Ekeler isn't new to the NFL – or to the Chargers roster – but is certainly drawing a little more attention this season.
Ekeler, who joined the Chargers as an undrafted rookie in 2017, totaled nine rushing touchdowns over his first four seasons. Through eight games this year, the 26-year-old has already scored a season-high five rushing touchdowns and added another three through the air.
"It's a good story, a small-college guy from Colorado comes out and just really plays the game the right way," Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said of Ekeler. "He plays physically, is a smaller guy, has got really good balance and vision."
Zimmer said he spoke with Vigil, who was with Ekeler on the Chargers roster last season.
"[Nick] said he was really strong," Adam Zimmer said. "You can see that when he runs and in his running style. He catches the ball out of the backfield and can make you miss, so he's a complete back."
Mike Zimmer called Ekeler "shifty and powerful for a small back." Ekeler is listed at five-foot-10 and weighs in at 200 pounds.
The Vikings have struggled to contain the run through the first half of the season, currently ranking 30th in the NFL having allowed opponents to average 136.6 rushing yards against them. Keying in on Ekeler will be important Sunday afternoon as Minnesota looks to improve to 4-5.
Inviting the run? | By @pcraigers
The Vikings rank ninth overall in rushing yards per game (124.9) and per play (4.58).
The unit will face a Chargers group that ranks last in rushing yards allowed per game (161.6) and per play (5.03). Los Angeles' defense has been shaped by Head Coach Brandon Staley's experiences in Chicago and Denver while assisting former Bears Defensive Coordinator and current Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio.
Minnesota Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak said the Chargers will give opponents better pre-snap looks that may prompt a team to run the football.
"But they're very multiple," Kubiak added. It's a really good scheme, a really sound scheme that we've played over the years, whether it's Vic Fangio in Chicago. They give you a lot of different looks that we're trying to give our guys this week. The main thing is that we want to get the ball in our playmakers' hands, regardless of if its run or pass."
The Vikings involved Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook early last week, gaining a total of 26 yards on rushes by each player to start the game. Jefferson capped the first possession with a 50-yard touchdown catch, and Cook set up Minnesota's second score with a 66-yard scamper.
Jefferson, however, has just nine targets in the past two games combined.
"Yeah, you don't want to come out of a game and Justin has those kinds of targets," Kubiak said. "He's well-deserving of getting the ball more. He helps us win games, so certainly every week we want to get our playmakers the ball. Him, Dalvin, Adam [Thielen], those are our top playmakers. So we have to be more conscious of that."
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said the Chargers feature a "good defense, good scheme" with a great pass rush, secondary and linebackers.
"Certainly, there's some similarities [to Fangio's approach in Denver]," Cousins said. "You always have to be aware of where there are changes. You don't want to fall asleep at the wheel just assuming they'll be similar. You recognize the shared backgrounds, but you also recognize that [Staley] has new personnel from where he's been, now he's the head coach, so you understand that 2021 is its own identity and you try to study it that way, too. Certainly a recognition of the background, and I have great respect for that background."
The Vikings can hope that success in the running game could lead to opportunities in the passing game. If so, then it's up to Minnesota to capitalize on opportunities.
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Chargers.
Notable Number: 3
The Vikings will make their third trip to Southern California in the past four seasons, but they'll be playing in their third different venue in that span.
In 2018, the Vikings faced the Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Thursday Night Football. The Week 4 game was a shootout, with Minnesota falling 38-31.
The Vikings made a return trip to SoCal in 2019, this time to play the Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. Minnesota got a Week 15 win by the score of 39-10 due to seven forced turnovers by its defense.
Now, the Vikings will once ahead head for sunshine and blue skies — and yet another venue. The Vikings and Chargers will meet Sunday at SoFi Stadium, which opened in 2020 and will host Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, 2022.
The Chargers are 6-6 at SoFi Stadium since it opened, including a 2020 season that did not include fans. Both of the league's Los Angeles teams (Chargers and Rams) share the stadium.