EAGAN, Minn. — Perhaps the fourth time will be the charm for the Vikings.
Minnesota enters Week 16 at 7-7 and in the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC.
If Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's squad wants to keep pace in the postseason race, that likely means getting above .500 for the first time this season.
Minnesota, which hasn't been above .500 since the end of the 2019 season, has missed out on chances to get there in Weeks 1, 8 and 12 of the 2021 season.
The Vikings, although a bit frustrated by not being able to get over that hump, are solely forward-focused ahead of Week 16.
"All we can do is just focus on the games that are in front of us," said Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson. "We're at .500 now and we've got a big game in front of us Sunday. All of our focus right now is on just trying to find a way to beat the Rams."
Eric Kendricks added: "It's been frustrating for sure, but it's just a one-game season at this point. You can't control anything in the past, [just] live in the moment."
If the Vikings win out, they will make the playoffs. And the odds are that Minnesota will likely need to win at least two of its final three games to have a shot.
The Rams, meanwhile, are 10-4 and trying to track down the Cardinals for the NFC West title. Los Angeles can clinch a playoff berth with a victory Sunday.
"We need to go out and play our best game of the year against this team in all three phases," Zimmer said.
Kickoff from U.S. Bank Stadium is at noon (CT) Sunday.
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 16:
Stopping an "all-star" Rams defense | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
The Vikings have used five different starting offensive line combinations thus far in 2021. And that number can jump to six on Sunday with Mason Cole being placed on Injured Reserve on Friday with an elbow injury.
"I thought he did a nice job," Zimmer said of Cole, who made seven total starts in 2021 at center and right guard. "He just got a hyperextended elbow … a three-week injury."
With Cole out, Minnesota could turn to a starting lineup of Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Olisaemeka Udoh and Brian O'Neill against Los Angeles. That group has started two games already together this season.
But if Dakota Dozier gets the start at right guard, that would be a new (and sixth different) combination up front this season.
"We'll see who we line up in there," Zimmer said Friday when asked about the right guard spot.
Whatever combination lines up will have its hands full with a Rams defensive line that is led by Aaron Donald, a player Kirk Cousins called “the total package” earlier this week.
Donald leads L.A. with 11.0 sacks, while outside linebacker Leonard Floyd has 9.0 sacks this season. Linebacker Von Miller, a future Hall of Famer the Vikings saw during training camp in joint practices when he was with the Broncos, has 5.5 total sacks in 2021. Miller was acquired in a midseason trade with Denver for multiple draft picks.
Zimmer said Friday that Minnesota's offensive line is in line for a big challenge.
"All three of those guys are big-time pass rushers," Zimmer said. "Leonard Floyd has improved so much from his first year with the Bears (in 2016), just with the way he can rush and run and the different things they do.
"Obviously, Von Miller is a terrific player, as well, and Donald has been the Defensive Player of the Year (three separate times)," Zimmer said. "They've got an all-star team over there with all the guys they have, so we'll have to do a great job offensively."
The Vikings are coming off their worst game of the season in terms of sacks allowed, with four. The Rams rank sixth in the NFL with 39 total sacks.
Prepping for reunion with 'Gunslinger' Stafford | By @LindseyMNSports
Matthew Stafford the Ram isn't all that much different from Matthew Stafford the Lion.
The Vikings are well-acquainted with the latter, having played Stafford 21 times during his time as Detroit's starting quarterback.
The Rams acquired Stafford via trade in March 2021. Through 14 games this season in a new uniform, the 33-year-old is 336-of-497 passing for 4,142 yards, 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with a passer rating of 108.2 – the second highest of his career.
"He is just as good as he's been his whole career," Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer said. "He's one of the toughest quarterbacks I think I've ever played. He takes a bunch of hits and keeps on getting back up. He gets back up and slings the ball. He's got a great arm, is very mobile in the pocket, and I think he's really thriving in this system. They use a lot of different route combinations and motions and things where he sees the field really well and can get the ball to his playmakers."
Zimmer also said Stafford looks "very similar" on tape to what he did with the Lions.
"Still can make all the throws. Very smart," Zimmer said. "Looks the defenders away and then goes back the other way. Great arm. I've always been a fan of his, since we've [been playing him] forever, and [he's] very competitive. I think he's very smart, sees things very well."
A number of Vikings defenders are quite familiar with Stafford, including Kendricks.
Not to sound like a broken record, but Kendricks also reiterated that Stafford "can make every throw" on game day.
"He's made some crazy throws on film so far … and he's got a lot of weapons, so it's up to us to match up, give him some different looks, switch it up and play a good game," Kendricks said.
"He just whips it around. He actually is deceptively fast, as well, so he can get out of the pocket and run for a couple first downs here and there," Kendricks added. "So we've got to be aware of that. In the same breath, he can make the outside throws relatively easy, so it's going to be a challenge for us."
Stafford may be wearing different colors Sunday, but the Vikings know exactly who they're dealing with – and they have a tall task ahead of them.
Look back on images from past games between the Vikings and the Rams.
D-line coming together with Patterson in mind | By @pcraigers
The Vikings defensive linemen will be thinking of Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator and beloved position coach Andre Patterson Sunday. Patterson will miss the game because he is dealing with COVID-19.
Asked about Patterson's condition, Zimmer said "He's struggling a little bit, so we're trying to get him some medicine and help him" but specified that Patterson is not hospitalized.
Zimmer said assistant defensive line coach Imarjaye Albury will "handle the substitutions for the defensive line and some of the game calls."
"We're going to miss [Patterson]," Zimmer added. "He's a terrific friend of mine and a great coach, so hopefully our defensive linemen plays their rear ends off for him."
The Vikings defensive line is already without long-established edge rushers Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. Minnesota has filled those spots in recent weeks by moving Sheldon Richardson from defensive tackle to replace Griffen and starting D.J. Wonnum at the spot normally played by Hunter.
Richardson and Wonnum both made their marks on Monday's game, with the former forcing and recovering a fumble deep in Vikings territory and the latter recording a career-best 3.0 sacks.
View photos of Vikings players from practice on Dec. 23 at the TCO Performance Center.
The endcaps have been blending with Michael Pierce (returned to the lineup in Week 13 after missing seven games with a partially torn triceps) and Dalvin Tomlinson (missed Week 12) as forces on the interior.
"I think they've done a nice job," Zimmer said. "Obviously it helps to get all of those guys back in there with Dalvin and Michael. Moving Sheldon out to end has added some strength at that spot, and D.J. just continues to try to improve with his athleticism. He runs real hard to the ball. Hopefully we can keep that going."
Pierce this week credited what Richardson has been able to do this year after being versatile with the Jets earlier in his career.
"To me, it's amazing. Like I said, I don't know of too many 3-techniques … you've gotta have some supremely talented guys to even think to require somebody to do something like that," Pierce said. "But I mean, as far as his transition to 5-technique and being able to understand all the calls, drops in coverage sometimes. You're gonna be hard-pressed to find too many guys that can do that, especially the way he carries. It's been a pleasure, man, [to watch on film]. Especially a run stopper, a big guy at 5-technique. That makes my job so, so much easier. I've enjoyed it."
Notable Number: 90
Running back Alexander Mattison is likely to make his fourth start of the season Sunday with Dalvin Cook currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Mattison has fared well in his first three starts in 2021, gaining at least 90 rushing yards in home games against the Browns and Seahawks, plus a road game against the Lions.
Cook, who was named to the Pro Bowl on Monday, leads the NFC (and ranks third in the NFL) with 1,067 rushing yards. He has 226 carries and six scores on the season.
"Obviously, when Dalvin is not playing, it's a big change for us because he's so explosive and such a good team leader," Zimmer said. "But I think he missed three games earlier this year, so it happens.
"We just have to go out and go play good," Zimmer said. "We expect Matty to go out and have a good day."
The Vikings also have fullback C.J. Ham and running backs Kene Nwangwu and Wayne Gallman on the active roster. Ham is listed as questionable on the final injury report of the week.