EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings surged back into the NFC playoff race in November, winning four of five games to climb to 5-6.
And with the calendar now flipped to December, Minnesota sits just one game behind Arizona (6-5) for the third and final NFC Wild Card spot.
But now is not the time for the Vikings to rest on recent laurels, even with the one-win Jaguars coming to town in Week 13.
"This is another game where you feel like you have to get the win one way or another, and have to find a way," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said this week.
Added Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer: "They're much better than their record … we're going to have to play them really well."
A Minnesota win in Week 13 will get the Vikings to .500 will increase the meaning of the other games in December.
And it'd be easy to peek at the final four games and see some fun NFC matchups down the stretch, but the final quarter of the 2020 season won't mean much if the Vikings don't take care of business Sunday at home against the Jaguars (1-10).
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:
Watch out for the rookie | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
The top two names atop the NFL rushing list is a who's who of star talent. Tennessee's Derrick Henry leads the league with 1,257 yards, and is looking for a repeat title as the rushing champion.
Dalvin Cook ranks second with 1,130 yards, and also leads the league with 13 rushing scores, as the Vikings running back highlighted his strong season thus far with NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for November.
But the third name on the list is more of an unknown, and he'll be at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
Jaguars running back James Robinson has tallied 890 rushing yards — including four 100-yard performances this season — along with six scores. Not bad for a rookie who wasn't even selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.
"I think there's a lot of different ways people look at it. If you're on the outside, free agent and this, this and that. All of a sudden, you see the production that he's had this year, which has been very good," said Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone. "But I can't say that I was surprised by that as far as once we got to working with him.
"Once he came in here, you could see some of the skill and the discipline and the work ethic. Obviously we made some moves at that position feeling very confident that he was going to be able to do all of the things that we've asked of him, and he has," Marrone added. "That's a credit to him. He's worked extremely hard. He just goes to work. He's not — he doesn't say much but is an ultra-competitor just trying to do the best job he can on each play."
Marrone said earlier this week that veteran quarterback Mike Glennon will start for Jacksonville. He is the third quarterback to start for the team in 2020.
With some inconsistent play at that position, perhaps the Jaguars rely heavily on their young and impressive running back against a Vikings defense that ranks 19th by allowing 120.7 rushing yards per game.
View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Jaguars during practice at TCO Performance Center.
Battle in the trenches | By @LindseyMNSports
As Eric mentioned above, the Jaguars may have an inglorious record, but the Vikings aren't taking the AFC South team lightly.
One of the areas I'll be watching Sunday is Minnesota's defensive line versus Jacksonville's offensive line, a unit which has helped fuel Robinson's success in the run game. The Jaguars o-line is anchored by center Brandon Linder, who has drawn praise from analytics site Pro Football Focus. A third-round draft pick in 2014, Linder has started all 78 games he's played for Jacksonville. On either side of Linder is right guard A.J. Cann and left guard Andrew Norwell. The Jaguars tackles are Cam Robinson, a 2017 second-round draft pick, on the left and Jawaan Taylor, a 2019 second-round selection, on the right. Taylor is listed as questionable.
The offensive line has been a fairly consistent piece for a Jacksonville team that's seen plenty of instability this season, and it's helped the Jaguars average 4.6 rushing yards per play, which ranks ninth in the NFL.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer commented earlier this week about the Jaguars starting five up front.
"They're big and physical. They pound the double teams really good," he said. "The back (Robinson) has good vision. Runs hard. They use a lot of the RPOs and the wide zones and then cut it back. The other thing is they'll have some hardball runs in there, too. It looks like to me that this offensive line loves to be physical."
He added that "every week" is a good test for the Vikings defensive line, which this season has relied on a rotation of younger players after the departure of Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph in free agency and the absence of Danielle Hunter (Injured Reserve).
"They're getting better," Zimmer said of Minnesota's d-line. "Each week is a different week trying to figure out exactly how we have to play a different team and the scheme we have to use. But we're hopeful that we continue to roll guys in there and they continue to do the job we're asking them to do."
Work the intermediate routes | By @pcraigers
The paper matchup before the game tilts toward the Vikings in multiple aspects with what has been a strength of Minnesota so far lining up with an aspect that Jacksonville has struggled with in 2020.
Total offense for Minnesota: 387.1 yards per game (7th in NFL) vs. Total defense for Jacksonville: 415.6 yards allowed per game (31st in NFL)
Yards per play for Minnesota: 6.43 (2nd in NFL) vs. Yards allowed per play by Jacksonville: 6.35 (32nd in NFL)
Goal-to-go offense for Minnesota: 86.96 percent of possessions end in touchdowns (2nd in NFL)
vs. Goal-to-go defense by Jacksonville: 90 percent of opponents' possessions have resulted in scores (30th in NFL)
Between the lines, it will be interesting to see where the Vikings attack the Jaguars in the passing game.
Minnesota is set to get Adam Thielen back after the All-Pro missed last week while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Cousins and the Vikings excelled against the Panthers on short (between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards beyond it) and intermediate routes (10 to 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage).
Cousins completed 17 of 20 passes for 111 yards and a score on short throws (passer rating of 106.5) and 12 of 14 intermediate passes for 180 yards and two more scores (NFL-max passer rating of 158.3).
This video highlights Justin Jefferson's success on deep (20-plus yards beyond the line) and intermediate passes since Week 8 and makes note of the difficulty that Jacksonville has had in defending throws that have traveled at least 10 air yards.
Jefferson has generated a passer rating of 152.2 (second in the NFL) since Week 8, catching 70.6 percent of passes thrown his direction in that span.
Jacksonville has allowed a passer rating of 114.5 (31st in the NFL) and 14 touchdowns (tied for the most) on deep or intermediate passes this season.
Asked about intermediate routes on Friday, Zimmer added the impact that shorter routes can play.
"Well typically, it's good on the first-and-10 starters, you know – hopefully you get to second-and-4, second-and-3, things like that. It allows you to convert first downs," Zimmer said. "And then as people start getting a little tighter into coverage, then you can start going over the top. But we always say, positive runs and completions, no matter how far they are, are a really good stat."
Notable Number: 124.3
Cousins has been clutch of late, especially when it has mattered most.
From Weeks 8-12, the quarterback led the NFL in passer rating with a 124.3 mark, edging out Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' 123.1 rating. Cousins is also second in yards per pass attempt (8.9) and third in passing touchdowns (12) in that same span.
He completed 105 of 145 passes (72.4 percent) for 1,293 yards with 12 touchdowns and just one interception in five games in the month of November.
Cousins has also thrived in the fourth quarter all season, as he has the league's top fourth-quarter passing rating at 136.4. Mahomes is second in that stat, too, at 128.5.