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Final Thoughts: Vikings Evaluations for 2021 Begin Sunday

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have one final chance to leave an impression on their 2020 season.

Minnesota is 6-9 and eliminated from playoff contention, as the Vikings wrap up the regular season Sunday on the road against the Lions (5-10).

Yet even with the playoffs out of the picture, Minnesota knows the importance of finishing the season on a high note.

"Every week is an opportunity to prove what you can do and to prove that you can play at a high level. That goes for someone with no experience and someone with a ton of experience," wide receiver Adam Thielen said earlier this week. "You always have something to prove, and there's always something people don't think you can do. At every point of your career, you have to prove something.

"This week is another great opportunity to go out there, give full preparation and full effort, and to show each person – as a team, individually – what we can do and what we're capable of," Thielen added. "And to build some type of momentum going into the offseason so that we can learn, grow and hopefully get to the place where we want to go as competitors and as a team."

Quarterback Kirk Cousins echoed Thielen's comments with an eye on the future.

"It's important that we don't view this as the last game of this year, but really as the first game of 2021," Cousins said. "I think that will help us kind of focus on where we're headed, what we're trying to build and try to get 2021 started off on the right foot."

And Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he's also going to be closely evaluating players in Week 17.

"Like I told the team, this is the last game that we play this year, so my evaluation for the next season will start this week," Zimmer said. "See how they go out and perform this week, and this is a game that I'll remember throughout the offseason as we start moving forward. I just want them to go out and play fast, play physical and play like they're supposed to."

Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of believe there could be multiple opportunities for less-experienced players to impact the game:

Make it a special finish | By @Eric\_L\_Smith

Minnesota's special teams units have certainly had their share of ups and downs in 2020, and there has rarely been a game where each phase — kicking, punting, kickoff and punt coverage and kick and punt return — have been on the same page.

But Sunday offers a chance to end the season on a high note against talented Detroit special teams groups.

One player to watch Sunday? Rookie Dan Chisena, who has seemingly progressed nicely of late after some midseason struggles.

Chisena, an undrafted free agent out of Penn State, has primarily flashed on punt coverage, where his speed and quickness has helped him corral punt returners.

"Dan has done a good job splitting the double teams as well and beating the singles," said Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf. "We have moved him around a little bit as well. You like those guys to be comfortable and they both are on either side."

Dan Bailey will also be in the spotlight … if he plays. The Vikings kicker is questionable with a back injury.

"I did more [Friday] from a workload standpoint, so I think it's just going to be one of those things where it's a collective decision," Bailey said. "We'll see how it feels [Saturday] and just make a decision from there.

"I think it's been progressing well throughout the week. I've felt better and better every day," Bailey added. "The treatment's going well, and they're doing a good job of getting me ready, if that is the direction we go. I'd love to get a full 16 games in, so I'm going to do everything I can do to be ready for Sunday."

Bailey is 14-for-20 on field goals and has made 33 of 38 extra points in 2020. If he cannot play, the Vikings would likely call up Taylor Bertolet from the practice squad.

Hoping for more Hardy Nickerson highlights | By @LindseyMNSports

Linebacker Hardy Nickerson may not be new to the NFL, but he's likely a fresh face to many Vikings fans. Minnesota signed Nickerson – who got his start in 2017 as an undrafted rookie for Cincinnati – off the Bengals practice squad in September. He has spent time on the Vikings practice squad and active roster throughout 2020, but (with the exception of Week 3) he's mainly been called on as a special teams contributor up until the past two weeks.

Injuries across Minnesota's defense have opened up opportunities for lesser-known names, and Nickerson saw an uptick in action. He played 25 percent of the Vikings defensive snaps against Chicago and last week was on the field at New Orleans for 40 snaps (53 percent). He also notched his first career interception when he picked off future Hall of Famer Drew Brees early in the third quarter. Nickerson was in perfect position to snag the pass tipped by Emmanuel Sanders, and the takeaway gave Minnesota the ball at the New Orleans 18. Three plays after the pick, Kirk Cousins connected with Irv Smith, Jr., for a touchdown that brought the Vikings within 4 of the Saints.

"The family was fired up and friends [were] fired up. I was excited," Nickerson said on Thursday. "I felt like at that point in the game, it kind of put our offense in a good spot to try to come back. Obviously it wasn't the ending we wanted, but it was a blitz dialed up, and my coverages took me to the flat and I just made the play. Just happy I could make the play at that time in the game."

Nickerson will likely see a fair amount of playing time at Detroit, two days before he celebrates his 27th birthday. If so, Vikings coaches will have more game film of the linebacker to evaluate as they turn the page to 2021.

"It's just been a year where you had to stay ready at every position," Nickerson said "This season coming in as a veteran, it's been a backup, special teams role for me, but I've had to stay ready at every [linebacker] position – Mike, Will, Sam – and had to step in during games whether it was one play or a whole game."

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.

Playing for Dalvin | By @pcraigers

Teammates, coaches, Vikings staff and fans have been thinking about Dalvin Cook and his family this week as the Pro Bowl running back grieves the unexpected death of his father, James, in Florida.

Cook's statistical season is one of the best in Vikings history with 1,557 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns, which both rank third in the franchise's record books, and he reached those totals in 14 games.

The impact of the fourth-year pro goes well beyond the impressive numbers. Named a season-long captain for the first time in his career, Cook has brought energy to the entire team. He exudes enthusiasm when others make plays in games or even in practices.

Behind Cook, the Vikings have second-year pro Alexander Mattison, veteran Ameer Abdullah and third-year pro Mike Boone.

Mattison has cleared concussion protocol and is expected to be available; Abdullah took a short pass and turned it into a 22-yard touchdown against his former team in Week 9; Boone scored a 4-yard touchdown on his lone carry against New Orleans last week.

In the rare times in 2020 that Cook was on the sidelines (he missed a game and a half because of a groin injury at Seattle in Week 5), he cheered for teammates who were in the game.

Now, those players have an opportunity to honor their teammate by filling in for him.

It will be interesting to see the way the Vikings split carries among the three backs that have been used sparingly all season, or if the Vikings turn more to the air when Minnesota has the football.

The Lions defense ranks 29th in the NFL with 135.5 rushing yards allowed per game and 30th with 278.3 passing yards allowed per game.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Lions.

Notable Numbers: 6 and 27

Entering Week 17, the Vikings offense ranks sixth overall in yards per game at 385.6. If the Vikings finish in the top 10, they will accomplish that feat for the first time since 2009.

Before this season, the Vikings best finish was in 2017 when the offense ranked 11th with 356.9 yards per game.

On the flip side, the Vikings defense is poised to have its worst finish in yardage since 2013. Minnesota currently ranks 27th in yards allowed per game at 391.7.

The Vikings had ranked in the top 14 of all NFL teams from 2014-2019, including three seasons in the top four in yards allowed per game.