EAGAN, Minn. — We're only six weeks into the 2021 schedule, but the Vikings season already feels as if it is at a crossroads.
And the direction Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's squad takes likely depends on what the final score says Sunday afternoon in Carolina.
Minnesota enters Week 6 with a 2-3 record, the byproduct of some close losses, a narrow win and plenty of drama and intrigue so far.
But there's no denying that Sunday's game is pivotal. Massive. Immense. You can pick any adjective, really.
If Minnesota wins, it will have climbed out of an early-season 0-2 hole to get to .500 at the bye. And not only will the Vikings be riding high during a week of rest, they will have positioned themselves to have a chance to make a playoff run beginning in Week 8.
Zimmer and Vikings players have talked about the importance of getting to 3-3 this weekend.
"Getting a win going into the bye is always huge. I believe it helps the team morale," Patrick Peterson said. "You go into the bye feeling a little bit better about yourself and you have the opportunity to recoup and regenerate your body and get back healthy for the second half of the season.
"Getting a win going into the bye week, there's nothing like it, so we definitely plan on getting this win," Peterson added.
Zimmer said: "I think it would be a good milestone for us to get to there. There's, what, 11 games left after that? The season's a long process."
But if the Vikings fall short, they will stay in survival mode after the bye, which features a four-game stretch as tough as any in the league.
In the span of four weeks, Minnesota hosts Dallas, goes to Baltimore and the Los Angeles Chargers and the returns home to face Green Bay. All four of those teams not only currently have winning records, but are also leading their respective divisions.
That's not to say the Vikings couldn't be 2-4 and then make a run. But that playoff chase would be grueling considering Minnesota would be fighting just to get to .500 in early November.
Zimmer's team has that chance now, and would be wise to take advantage of it in Week 6 against the Panthers.
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 6:
Who steps up in the passing game? | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
All eyes were on the Vikings passing attack this week in terms of both personnel and scheme.
Justin Jefferson (ankle) and Adam Thielen (foot) did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, but both were limited and did enough work in Friday's ssession to not have an injury designation for Sunday's game.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak said Thursday that the trio of K.J. Osborn, Dede Westbrook and rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette each got value practice reps this week.
"Yeah, great opportunity for them when guys are not practicing, to showcase themselves, and they've done a great job," Kubiak said. "Obviously, we know K.J.'s had a heck of a season. Dede has made plays when his number is called.
"So those guys continue to develop," Kubiak added, "and I can't say enough about Keenan McCardell, how he works with them on the side and keeps bringing them along, because we're going to need everybody for this season."
With Jefferson and Thielen seemingly dinged up, one of those three aforementioned receivers could take on a larger role against the Panthers. Tyler Conklin and the tight ends could also play a bigger role, too.
Fans will also be watching to see if the Vikings open up the offense a bit, as that unit has been shut out of the end zone in the second half of the past four games.
View photos of Vikings players from practice on Oct. 14 at the TCO Performance Center.
Find a way to run the ball | By @LindseyMNSports
The Vikings have a tough task ahead of them Sunday.
Not only will they be looking to get their ground game going with a banged-up running back corps, but they'll be doing so against a stout Carolina defense. The Panthers through five games rank No. 8 in the NFL against the run, having allowed opponents an average of 94.2 rushing yards per game. Three of those opponents – the Jets, Saints and Texans – have been held to fewer than 50 rushing yards, and only one team totaled 100 or more. The Cowboys racked up 245 rushing yards against the Panthers in Week 4.
"They're big, fast, physical; they've got it all," Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said. "They've got the guys in the back end who are able to run. Their linebackers are good, secondary's good, up front is where they get their money at, where they take care of business at. Just got to go play some good football to not be held under 50 yards."
Cook missed last week's game against Detroit with an ankle injury. He was a limited practice participant Wednesday and practiced in full Thursday and Friday. He was not listed with a designation for Sunday's game and is expected to play.
Alexander Mattison, who filled in for Cook against the Lions as well as against the Seahawks in Week 3, was listed on this week's injury report with a shoulder injury.
It will be interesting to see what approach Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Kubiak take to the running game this week ahead of the bye.
Reaching Darnold with interior pressure | By @pcraigers
ESPN's Courtney Cronin and PFF's Ben Linsey highlighted pressure on Darnold in recent pieces that we included in Friday's Lunchbreak.
The 2018 No. 3 overall pick by the Jets and Panthers offseason acquisition has been sacked 14 times this season, including eight times in the past two weeks. Losses at Dallas and at home against Carolina have included five interceptions.
Where have teams had the most success in generating pressure?
On the interior. A quick look at all 14 of the sacks allowed by the Panthers showed that nine were between the tackles and three were by edge rushers. A corner blitz by New Orleans was successful in Week 2. One of Dallas' 5.0 in Week 4 seemed to be a 50-50 edge and interior combo.
The Vikings will be without nose tackle Michael Pierce, but Sunday could be a good opportunity for Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson and Armon Watts to make their presence felt in the middle. Be on the lookout, too, for Minnesota's proclivity for kicking an edge rusher like Everson Griffen inside as part of the nickel rush unit.
Nine of Carolina's sacks allowed have been on third downs; four have occurred on first downs, and one has happened on a second down.
Minnesota's defense enters Sunday's game ranked third in the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-play percentage of 10.4 percent. Carolina's offense ranks 22nd with a sacks-allowed-per-pass-play percentage of 7.65.
Notable Number: 5
The Vikings are 5-2 under Zimmer in games prior to the bye week since the start of the 2014 season. Here's a look at Minnesota's history in such games over the past seven seasons:
2014: Win over Washington
2015: Loss to Denver
2016: Win over Houston
2017: Win over Cleveland (in London)
2018: Win over Detroit
2019: Win over Denver
2020: Loss to Atlanta