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Final Thoughts: Vikings Treating Week 13 Like Playoff Game

EAGAN, Minn. — Adam Thielen put it best this week when talking about Week 13. 

"It's a playoff game for us. So at the end of the day, it doesn't matter who we're playing," Thielen said. "It's a playoff game for us, and we've got to treat it as such and be prepared."

That is the position the Vikings find themselves in with six games to go in the 2021 season. Minnesota is sporting a 5-6 record that has it on the outside looking in of the current NFC Playoffs.

The Vikings were also 5-6 a year ago, when they got to .500 but faltered down the stretch and missed the playoffs by one game. The hope inside Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center is that the sprint to the playoffs has a different ending this time around.

"I believe we have a lot of the same players that were here last year," said quarterback Kirk Cousins. "Experience should help and make you a better team, a more savvy team, a more veteran team. I believe that can help us down the stretch."

The Vikings have pinballed around the standings this season, yet have actually been consistent in a way in the past two months.

Minnesota started 1-3 but then won two straight … only to lose two straight … only to win two straight. That chaotic stretch brought Minnesota to .500, but the Vikings are now looking to avoid a similar two-game pattern after losing to the 49ers in Week 12.

Detroit is 0-10-1 on the season, but has endured five losses by eight or fewer points — only one fewer game than Minnesota. The Lions may be winless, but they certainly have the Vikings attention this week.

Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson implored the importance of staying focused this week.

"The other thing that I tell them all of the time is, 'This is the NFL. They've got first-round picks, they've got guys that are making millions of dollars every Tuesday, getting a check. They've got real, NFL players, so you have to respect them in that regard,' " Patterson said. "It's not, we can't go schedule — I don't want to make any college get upset at me, but you can't go schedule a I-AA or a Division II school to come in here and just get beat. It's not this way.

"They've got great players on their team, so you have to respect their ability and their talent, and if we don't play well, they will beat us," Patterson added. "Regardless of their record, if we don't play well on Sunday, they will beat us, and that's just the reality of the situation in the National Football League."

The Vikings reality is that they need a win to stay afloat in the NFC Wild Card race. If Minnesota wins and Washington loses in Week 13, the Vikings will be back into a playoff spot with five games to go.

A Minnesota loss won't eliminate the Vikings from the playoff picture. But you can bet the Vikings don't want to be the first team the Lions get a win against.

Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 13:

Find some consistency in the run game | By @Eric\_L\_Smith

Alexander Mattison is in line for his fifth career start Sunday, as Dalvin Cook won't play with a shoulder injury.

Mattison has plenty of familiarity against Detroit, as this will be his third start against the Lions. He has recorded at least 95 rushing yards in his past two starts, including a career-best 113 rushing yards in Week 5 against Detroit's defense.

"He's done a nice job when he's been in there," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "We anticipate him … going in there and playing well."

With Cook sidelined (Zimmer said Friday that he's "feeling good"), there will be an emphasis for the Vikings to run the ball more effectively than they have all season.

Against the 49ers, Cook had 10 carries for 39 yards before he was injured. He tallied a 30-yard run, which meant his other nine carries netted just 9 yards. Mattison recorded just 21 yards on his seven attempts.

Those recent stats highlight a troubling season-long pattern for Minnesota's run game.

The Vikings have attempted 298 total rushes in 2021, but 144 of them (48.3 percent) have gone for 2 or fewer yards this season. That stat includes 43 attempts that have resulted in losses.

"It's a little bit of the run game in general," Zimmer said. "That's why you have to stick with it … it's 1, it's 2, it's 3, it's minus-1 and then it's 20.

"You'd like to gets 20s all the time, but defenses are slanting and moving and changing alignments or things like that," Zimmer added. "Sometimes you get into a bad play here and there, but hopefully we can get this going a little bit better."

The Vikings are tied for fifth in the NFL with eight rushes of 20-plus yards this season. Yet as the playoff race heats up, Minnesota's offense would benefit from preventing "famine" plays on the way to feast plays.

Will Cousins have usual Motor City success? | By @LindseyMNSports

Historically, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins has had tremendous success against the Lions – and especially at their home field in Detroit.

Cousins is 7-1 all-time against the Lions, the only loss being during his time with the Washington Football Team. As Minnesota's QB, Cousins' lowest passer rating in Detroit was 127.6 in the 2020 regular-season finale. His other two visits to the Motor City? He logged passer ratings of 137.9 and 141.5. In three road games against the Lions since joining the Vikings, Cousins has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 332 passing yards per game at Ford Field.

Will Cousins have a similar outing in Detroit on Sunday? If so, it would be a welcome "bounce-back" after a contest at San Francisco that saw a few errant throws.

"On the 2-point conversion I may have rushed it, just short-armed it, and wasn't on rhythm. Disappointing. A poor throw by me," Cousins explained to media members earlier this week. "The fourth down throw to Justin [Jefferson] in the back of the end zone, the ball was just too high as I was falling away. I need to drive the ball more than to try to put it up high when I'm falling away, that's only going to cause the ball to go even higher. The last route of the game, the in-cut, the ball was up and high, and I felt like again I needed to drive it a little more, put it on him instead of trying to touch it in there, and should have just driven it with a little more conviction. Those were three [throws] that come to mind. There were a couple others where you'd love to have six inches here or there. You have to learn from them and be that much sharper this week."

Cousins completed 25 of 34 passes for 275 yards with a touchdown and interception (passer rating of 94.6) earlier this season against the new Detroit regime and knows the division rival cannot be counted out.

"When you watch Detroit, you see what we've talked about with the parity in the league – and while their record isn't certainly where they want it to be, they're in every game, they're playing down to the final play, the last drive, and we've certainly lived that, too," Cousins said. "Having played them already once [this season], I have a lot of respect for their defense, how hard they play, the players they have, how smart they are, the way their coaches handle their scheme. I see it as a great challenge for us, especially going on the road, and we've got to get this bad taste out of our mouth from this San Francisco game."

Defense grinding | By @pcraigers

It's Week 13, and the 2021 Vikings are yet to have all 11 players on the opening day first-team defense play a game.

To be clear, Minnesota won't be able to for a single game this season since defensive end Danielle Hunter suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 8. Prior to that, linebacker Anthony Barr missed the first four games of the season, and defensive tackle Michael Pierce has been trying to work back from an injury that knocked him from Minnesota's Week 4 game.

Last week, the Vikings started four players on the defensive line who have predominantly been reserves. There's a chance that Pierce could be activated from Injured Reserve (he was designated for return this week), and it also appears that Dalvin Tomlinson is good to go after returning from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

That combo would provide a boost for the interior of the defensive line, but the middle of Minnesota's defense is banged up. Barr (knee/hamstring) and Eric Kendricks (biceps) are listed as questionable.

After Barr left last week's game, Nick Vigil was fitted for a helmet with a communications device. He's handled the duties of relaying calls from the sideline when Barr has been out this season and has done well in his first season with Minnesota. Vigil (ribs) also is on the injury report this week.

"We've been, not fortunate, but Nick's had to do quite a bit this year," Zimmer said. "Even last week, we had to change out the helmets. They all know — Troy [Dye] will be the next signal caller, and then they all know the signals in case that ever happens."

The Vikings haven't quite reached the level of injuries they dealt with last December, but they are still shorthanded and need to do themselves a favor by getting another win in an NFC game because of the weight that conference games have in breaking potential ties.

"You always try to be the best prepared you can be and hope that those kinds of things don't happen," Zimmer said. "Hopefully we get some guys back and they play good."

Detroit's offense will miss dynamic running back D'Andre Swift, who was ruled out Friday, but the Vikings again have to work through absences of starters at every level of the defense.

Notable Number: 45

Sunday will mark Zimmer's 45th game against the NFC North since he was hired in January of 2014.

The Vikings Head Coach is 24-19-1 in division games, but has found the most success going against Detroit. Here is a look at Zimmer's record against division teams in his tenure:

Lions: 10-5 (includes current eight-game win streak)

Packers: 7-7-1

Bears: 7-7 

The Vikings are currently 2-0 in NFC North play this season, one of six NFL teams to not have a loss against a division foe. Minnesota's best division record under Zimmer is 5-1, which happened in 2015 and 2017 as the Vikings won the NFC North both seasons.

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