MINNEAPOLIS — At 4-6, the Minnesota Vikings still have playoff aspirations. But time is running out for Mike Zimmer's team to make its move.
Here's what to look for in Sunday's Week 12 matchup against the Carolina Panthers:
After losing Sunday to Dallas, Minnesota's paths to the postseason have gotten even fewer. With games at Tampa Bay, against Chicago and at New Orleans still on the schedule, the Vikings need to take advantage of games against sub-.500 teams — especially when that team is missing their most dangerous offensive player, running back Christian McCaffrey.
As of the writing of this article, wideout Adam Thielen remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list. If he is unavailable, who will pick up his slack on the outside? Rookie Justin Jefferson will get his share of targets, but one of Chad Beebe, Bisi Johnson or even Tajae Sharpe will need to step up to give Kirk Cousins another option. Also look for increased involvement from tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. Even fullback C.J. Ham could get more looks in the passing game. Expect the Vikings to take a "many hands make light work" approach in replacing Thielen.
Guess who's back?
That's right! Wide receiver Brandon Zylstra, the former Viking, Concordia (Moorhead) Cobber and New London-Spicer Wildcat makes his return to Minnesota. As an added bonus, former Gophers running back Rodney Smith returns to the state he played collegiate ball.
Oh yeah, and Teddy. After getting onto the field for one play (as a wide receiver) with New Orleans in his first return to Minnesota, Bridgewater will get his chance as the starting quarterback — as long as his knee injury doesn't keep him out of the game.
Stick to the plan
Kirk Cousins has had a good stretch of games, primarily because he has been able to stick to the game script created by offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The Vikings will look to stick to the formula that has been the reason behind the team's return from the brink of a wasted season: feed Dalvin Cook, and create plays off the play-action pass.
In McCaffrey's absence, Mike Davis has been a big boost out of the backfield for the Panthers. Averaging more than 80 yards and a touchdown per game started, he has been everything coach Matt Rhule could hope for out of a backup. His bruising running style could play well against a Minnesota defensive line light on strong run stoppers.