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Final Thoughts: Stretch run is just beginning, but playoff feel is already here

The Vikings and Seahawks each have a quarter of their season to play and will each be in the thick of the playoff chase even with another loss this week. But those facts have done nothing to diminish the sense of urgency for both teams as they prepare to battle at CenturyLink Field on Monday night.

Coaches avoid hyperbole like the plague. Coaches always promote the “each game is 1/16th of the schedule” mantra. But when asked this week if his team’s upcoming game against the 7-5 Seahawks had that playoff feel to it, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer couldn’t help but acknowledge that it did.

“I think going on the road with that crowd and the type of football team that they are, I think yeah, a little bit,” Zimmer said. “These next four games will determine what we do and where we go and how we perform in the clutch. Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

And Vikings fans should feel good that their head coach is willing to accept the significance of this week’s game. Even though the playoffs are still well within reach if the Vikings lose on Monday night, a win on the road against a battle-tested team such as the Seahawks would be a huge boost to a Vikings team looking to straighten things out and begin an ascent to peak play in the final month of the season.

While the Vikings have run out of time to better or equal last season’s 13-3 regular season record, they have not run out of time to achieve all of their goals for 2018 – winning the division, making the playoffs, winning the NFC and winning the Super Bowl. A big first step toward those goals would be a big win in Seattle on Monday night.

Key for Vikings defense: Win on early downs

The Vikings defense is the NFL’s best on 3rd downs, where they are holding opponents to a conversion rate of 29.9%. Last week, though, the New England Patriots solved the 3rd down riddle versus the Vikings, completing seven of 14 (50%) attempts. The key was New England’s flexibility in play calling, as they used runs and screens in addition to traditional drop backs. The Patriots were able to do that because they had relatively short to-go distances on 3rd downs – an average of only 4.5 yards to go. So in order to do a better job on 3rd downs against Seattle this week, the Vikings have focused on performing better on 1st and 2nd down.

“We’ve got to do a good job on first and second down to where we can make those longer situations where they’re not in third and two to four, running the football and those kind of things,” Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said. “This team is very similar in third and two to four, or when you get in longer yardages, they’ll run the football. We got to do a good job of putting ourselves ahead of the sticks on first and second down too.”

Matchup of the Game: Vikings Offensive Tackles vs. Frank Clark

The most disruptive player on Seattle’s defense is edge rusher Frank Clark. He has 10.0 sacks and three forced fumbles on the season, which only slightly illustrates his true impact on each game. Clark has the aforementioned production, but it’s his versatility and constant threatening of pass protections that impacts the game. Clark can line up on either side, he’s good against the run as well as good in pass-rush situations and he’s become a leader of the defense. The ability of the Vikings offense, specifically the offensive tackles, to identify Clark’s whereabouts and block him on a snap-to-snap basis will be a huge factor in this game.

Mailbag

It seems like no matter what happens, Kirk Cousins never gets the respect he deserves. But when we lose and he throws one interception, then all you hear is negativity. Why do you think that is? And do you honestly think we will make the playoffs? Not looking too good at the moment.

-- Darryl Jones

That is life in the NFL, especially for coaches and quarterbacks. They shoulder most of the blame when things go wrong and they also are the recipients of much of the praise when things go the right way. Fair or unfair, that’s how it goes in the NFL. It goes with the territory of occupying the two most important spots on a NFL team – head coach and starting quarterback. As for making the playoffs, yes, I do think the Vikings will make it and I disagree that things don’t look good at the moment. Entering Week 14, the Vikings were nearly certain to make the playoffs with three-plus wins in their last four games and they were likely to make it with two wins in their final four games. Remember, that tie on the Vikings record means they get the nod over any team if they finish with the same amount of wins as that team. This means that for another team to get the nod over the Vikings, they must finish with more wins. For the Vikings to miss the playoffs after winning eight games, two of these three team would have to finish with nine wins: Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington. It could happen, no doubt. And it will get tight if the Vikings lose on Monday night. But there’s a long way to go, the Vikings control their own destiny and the key will be taking it one game at a time.

Quotable

There was a lot of talk this week about the Vikings abandoning the run in the second half last week in New England and about the potential correction of that issue this week during practice leading up to the Monday night game in Seattle. Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo, who has said previously that no one wants to run the ball well more than him, broached the topic of offensive balance this week while meeting with reporters. His several-sentence input was an illustration that he appreciates the need for balance and has given it a lot of thought as he designs and calls the Vikings offense.

“Here is the way I view balance. To me, I think each game is different. I really do. I am a firm believer in that. Each way you attack an opponent is different. I think if you just go in with the same plan to attack an opponent each week, I don’t think at times that is going to give you the best chance for success. I think you try to exploit the weakness whatever you view that defense is and find different ways to exploit that part of the defense. Just like the way the defenses do against the offense. If you are struggling against the blitz, they are going to blitz you. If you are struggling against cover-two, they are going to play cover-two. It is very similar back and forth between the offense and the defense in terms of each week is different. Balance to me is going to be different each week.” – Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo on offensive balance

Stat of the Week

The Vikings have allowed the third-fewest rushes of four-plus yards (150) and Seattle has generated the most rushes of four-plus yards (188) in 2018

There has been a lot of focus on the Vikings rushing offense this week. But don’t forget about Seattle’s rushing offense. They lead the league in rushing attempts and have run 54% of the time during their current three-game winning streak.

Broadcast Information

National TV: ESPN

Play-by-Play: Joe Tessitore

Analyst: Jason Witten

Sideline: Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters

National Radio: Westwood One Sports

Play-by-Play: Kevin Harlan

Analyst: Kurt Warner

Sideline: Scott Kaplan

Local Radio: KFAN-FM 100.3/KTLK-AM 1130

Play-by-Play: Paul Allen

Analyst: Pete Bercich

Sideline: Greg Coleman, Ben Leber

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