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Final Thoughts: Vikings Begin Crunch Time Against Panthers

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have endured all sorts of twists and turns through the first 10 games of the 2020 season.

Minnesota has endured injuries, had young players step up and also seen good and bad play from all three phases.

Yet now that Thanksgiving has passed, it's official crunch time for the Vikings, who sit at 4-6 and don't have much room for error if they want to make a push for the postseason.

That doesn't necessarily mean winning out, but the Vikings can ill afford to lose back-to-back games, especially at home.

"As with anything in the NFL, when you have a tough loss you've got to get right back up on the horse and get back to work, and that's what we've got to do," said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Carolina enters at 4-7 with one more game before its bye.

View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Panthers during practice at TCO Performance Center.

Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:

Finish it out | By @Eric_L_Smith

There was plenty of frustration after Sunday's 31-28 loss to the Cowboys, especially after the Vikings had the lead late in the game.

At the 2-minute warning, Minnesota led 28-24 but soon gave up the go-ahead score. It wasn't the first time that scenario has played out that way for the Vikings in 2020.

In Week 3 against the Titans, the Vikings led by two at the 2-minute warning … and lost by one. Two weeks later in Seattle, Minnesota led by five … only to lose by one.

That's three losses this season when Minnesota had a one-possession lead with only two minutes to go in a game. In fairness, the Vikings also have three wins in such situations, as Minnesota was able to hold on late against Houston (up by eight at the 2-minute mark) and Green Bay and Chicago (up by six against each at the 2-minute warning).

Zimmer has long preached the importance of the final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter to his team, and has seen mixed results in 2020, which could be due to an influx of youth on defense.

He said it's tough to harp on that aspect during the season but noted the Vikings will need to be prepared for such a situation Sunday against Carolina.

"Yeah, it's hard — obviously we do 2-minute drills, but it's really hard to get back into training camp mode with basically a 2-minute drill," Zimmer said. "But it seems like every week has come down to the last drive or the last two drives of the game.

"Hopefully we'll play good the rest of the game … we're going to have to, in order to win games," Zimmer added. "Carolina, they've had [seven] of their games within eight points or less anyway, so it's been a lot of one-score games. That's not including a game like last week that they won 20-nothing."

If the Vikings want to finish the final stretch of 2020 on a high note — and make that potential playoff push mentioned above — closing out games should be a high priority, both Sunday and beyond.

A matter of receivers | By @LindseyMNSports

Who will start at WR1 and WR2 for the Vikings on Sunday?

Adam Thielen was added to the COVID-19/Reserve list Monday, and his status for game day remains undetermined.

If Thielen is unable to suit up against the Panthers, rookie phenom Justin Jefferson is likely to be Kirk Cousins' top target, but how will the Vikings proceed after that?

"It's just next man up," Jefferson told media members earlier this week. "We have a good receiver corps that can step up in his place and make some plays."

Asked if he anticipates Carolina's defense to cover him differently if Thielen is absent, Jefferson emphasized that it doesn't much impact Minnesota's approach.

"[We just have to] scheme up something and go to work. It doesn't matter what they play," Jefferson said. "We still have to find a way to get playmakers the ball and move the ball downfield."

Zimmer noted that Jefferson's role and responsibilities don't change if he starts in place of Thielen.

"There's a lot on [Justin's] plate now, the things that he's doing and trying to do, and obviously we still don't know about Adam," Zimmer said. "It's kind of hard to say, 'Well, if Adam doesn't play, you're going to do all these different things, and if he does play, then you're going to do this.' "

So far this season, Jefferson leads the Vikings in receiving with 848 yards, followed by Thielen's 646. The veteran receiver has an NFL-best 11 receiving scores, though, compared to Jefferson's four.

If the Vikings are without Thielen, it seems likely that second-year receiver Bisi Johnson would be a second starter alongside Jefferson. Johnson opened the first two games of the season opposite Thielen. Minnesota also has in its arsenal Chad Beebe and Tajaé Sharpe, who has played in just two games for the Vikings after signing with the team as a free agent this spring.

The long way home | By @pcraigers

The Vikings offense has been feast (34 touchdowns) or famine (turnovers or quick punts) with a few field goals (Dan Bailey is 8-for-10 on the season) sprinkled in between.

"I think it has been kind of weird. I'm usually not used to not kicking this much," Bailey said this week. "I think we had a stretch there where we didn't kick any for two or three games or something. … We're still getting the same reps in practice.

"I'm still ready, still preparing the same way," he added. "The rhythm still feels good, so who knows? We might have 20 attempts in these last six games. It works like that sometimes. So you just have to stay ready and be ready to go."

Out of Minnesota's 42 scoring drives, the Vikings have gained 60 or fewer yards on the way to points just eight times.

Opposing offenses have mounted 52 scoring drives, with 28 ending in touchdowns and 24 more that have resulted in 3-pointers. A majority of those possessions (32 total) have gained 60 or fewer yards on the way to the scoreboard.

Put another way, 61.5 percent of opponents' scoring drives have been 60 or fewer yards this season, while just 19.0 percent of Minnesota's scoring drives have been 60 or fewer yards.

It's tough to deliver 75-yard drives over and over again, so it would serve the Vikings well to be able to add some other possessions that can end with 3 points by Bailey, who ranked sixth in the NFL in 2019 with 121 points.

The Vikings can help this down the stretch by reducing turnovers to avoid giftwrapping short fields to opponents. Minnesota also can getting some help from special teams in flipping field position with tighter coverage of punts or by springing some longer returns of their own when there's an opportunity to do so.

Notable Number: 750

Dalvin Cook has gone on a "fun run," as the Vikings running back has tallied 750 total yards from scrimmage in his past four games.

He had 226 yards against Green Bay, 252 against Detroit, 112 against Chicago and 160 against Dallas.

That total is not only a personal best for four-game stretch by Cook, but it is also a franchise record in a four-game span.

Cook, who ranks second in the league with 1,069 rushing yards, leads the NFL in both rushing touchdowns (13) and total scores (14).

His total touchdowns tie him for 10th in a single season in team history. Cook has also set a single-season best in touchdowns, surpassing his mark of 13 total touchdowns in 2019.

Cook was a Pro Bowler in 2019 and has the third-most votes of any player for the 2020 game. You can vote for Cook and other Vikings here for the Pro Bowl.

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