The Minnesota Vikings need two things to happen Sunday in order to secure the division crown and a playoff spot: A win or a tie against the New York Jets and a Detroit Lions loss.
While having home-field advantage this weekend will certainly help, Minnesota knows things won't be easy against a challenging Jets team that is currently No. 7 in the AFC Playoff standings.
Alec Lewis and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic recently broke down what they will be watching during Sunday's game and what the Vikings biggest concerns and opportunities are.
Lewis wrote he'll be keeping an eye on the battle between Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell and Jets Head Coach Robert Saleh.
The former (O'Connell) has an offensive background. The latter (Saleh) specializes in defense. The two faced off in 2020 when they were both coordinators in the NFC West. Their two matchups were close, but Saleh got the upper hand twice. They now lead different teams with distinct personnel strengths. O'Connell leans heavily on a play-action passing game based out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). Saleh, meanwhile, deploys a heavy dose of zone coverage with a front that can apply pressure.
View photos of Vikings players unboxing their custom cleats for the 2022 "My Cause My Cleats" campaign that showcase nonprofits that are important to them.
Krawczynski will turn his attention to a battle that will occur on the field, as Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson lines up against Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner. Krawczynski wrote:
The Jets rookie cornerback has been incredibly impressive, backing up his flashy name with all the confidence and ability you could want. Watching him go toe-to-toe with Jefferson will be a showcase of two of the league's rising young stars. Let's see if the third-year receiver can teach the young DB a thing or two.
Lewis noted a key concern for the Vikings will be their pass defense. Minnesota is currently ranked last in the NFL in opponent yards per pass attempt at 7.8.
Make no mistake about it, the Vikings have missed cornerback Cameron Dantzler, Sr., who has not played since [an ankle injury in Week 9], and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who [suffered a calf injury in Week 8]. Still, the ease with which quarterbacks have moved the ball through the air is concerning against a Jets team that has dynamic pass-catching options (Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore, etc.).
Krawczynski added Jets quarterback Mike White is playing with a lot of confidence after throwing for 315 yards and three touchdowns against Chicago last week and will also be a concern for Minnesota's pass defense.
The Jets were showing their new QB how much they support him — and probably sending a message to [Zach] Wilson about how to lead a team. Beware a team that is playing with not only the motivation to win games, but to send bigger messages. That's what the Jets look like right now.
Lewis noted Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins will have a key opportunity Sunday to build off his stellar prime-time showing against the Patriots on Thanksgiving.
While the Jets rank fourth in team defense, Lewis said Cousins' ability to stay strong in the pocket and find his targets downfield will be the main key to the Vikings success on offense Sunday.
Vikings continuing to execute in fourth quarters
Last season, the Vikings let fourth-quarter leads slip away. This year, it's been just the opposite.
Of Minnesota's nine victories this season, eight have come by a one-score margin, including six via fourth-quarter comebacks. The Vikings rank first in the NFL in average points scored per game in the fourth (8.5) while simultaneously giving up the fourth-fewest points in the quarter (3.9). Minnesota is also in the top six in the following defensive categories in the same time frame: turnover percentage, sacks and touchdowns allowed.
In addition, the Vikings aerial attack is fourth in Expected Points Added (EPA) in fourth quarters while also boasting the second-best defense.
Matthew Coller of Purple Insider recently looked at why Minnesota is so good in the fourth and recruited the help of Pro Football Focus analytics expert Tej Seth.
Coller noted one reason for Minnesota's fourth-quarter success is the empowerment that Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has given quarterback Kirk Cousins. He wrote:
From the time he arrived, O'Connell has made supporting Cousins a top priority. Coach and quarterback communicate throughout games, which may assist in making adjustments. After the Vikings win against the Patriots, O'Connell said that he told Cousins in his headset to look for a certain read that led to Adam Thielen's open touchdown.
"I've just sensed since April I think Kevin has gone out of his way at times to empower me and I don't know if that's just a remark he'll make in a team meeting of offensive meeting, but he's just been intentional about trying to do that," Cousins said Wednesday. "It helps a lot as the quarterback to feel that, and I appreciate that. He doesn't have to do that, and I feel like he's gone out of his way to do that, and I think it helps."
Seth added having the right players around Cousins has helped, too, especially tight end T.J. Hockenson and his ability to help free up wide receiver Justin Jefferson downfield.
"Hockenson getting there has changed the mentality from O'Connell and Cousins with how aggressive they can be," Seth said. "Pre-Hockenson Cousins had a 6.1 average depth of target, which was 35th of 36 quarterbacks. Post-Hockenson trade he's up to 8.1 ADoT, which is 12th in the league right now. … You have someone who can run intermediate routes where it's between 10-15 yards downfield, that means Jefferson can be the deeper receiver, and it changes the way defenses have to play Jefferson. Cousins can be more aggressive because defenses have to respect Jefferson's increased frequency of going deep."
Seth said if the Vikings are going to continue their fourth-quarter success, the defense needs to improve.
"Given everything we know about how defense fluctuates from week to week, year to year, and how players in coverage are unstable, I think I'd be more worried about the Vikings defense in the fourth quarter collapsing," Seth said.
Seth says the underlying data does not indicate that [the Vikings defense is] playing different schematically in the fourth quarter. [Defensive Coordinator] Ed Donatell's blitz percentages and coverage distributions are nearly identical in the first three quarters as during crunch time.
It's possible that Donatell's defense, which blitzes the fourth least in the NFL per Pro-Football Reference and plays a high rate of two-deep coverages, might be built better for slowing down desperate opponents who need big plays at the ends of games.