The New England Patriots will round out their swing through the NFC North on Sunday when they welcome the Minnesota Vikings to Gillette Stadium in Week 13.
Here are five things to know about the Vikings:
1. They currently own the NFC’s first wild-card spot
The Vikings sit at 6-4-1 after knocking off the Green Bay Packers 24-17 on Sunday in a pivotal NFC North showdown. They have a bizarre blowout loss to the Buffalo Bills on their record (27-6 back in Week 3), but their other three defeats have come against the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears — currently the top three teams in the NFC — all by 10 points or fewer.
There are at least five teams still with a viable chance of earning a wild-card spot in the NFC, so each of these final five games borders on must-win for Minnesota.
2. They might have the NFL’s best receiving duo
Adam Thielen deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, etc. as one of the NFL’s best wide receivers. He’s having a phenomenal season, surpassing 100 receiving yards in nine of the Vikings’ 11 games and leading the league with 93 receptions. And Stefon Diggs, the recipient of last year’s Minnesota Miracle, is putting together a strong campaign of his own, catching 79 passes for 790 yards and five touchdowns.
Thielen and Diggs have accounted for 54.1 percent of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ completions this season, 53.2 percent of his targets, 58.6 percent of his passing yards and 14 of his 22 touchdown passes. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has been the Vikings’ next-most-productive pass-catcher, tallying 43 receptions for 425 yards and two scores.
3. Cousins check-in
No sane person can say Cousins has lived up to the fully guaranteed $84 million contract he signed before the season, but he’s played well overall, ranking in the top five in passing yards and completion percentage and the top 10 in touchdown passes and passer rating. Ball security has been a bit of an issue for the former Washington Redskin, though, as he’s thrown seven interceptions and fumbled eight times, losing six.
Cousins also has the misfortune of playing behind one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines.
4. Dalvin Cook has yet to break out
Minnesota’s top pick in the 2017 draft missed the bulk of his rookie season with a torn ACL, and a hamstring issue this year caused him to miss the entire month of October. Even when he’s been on the field, Cook has struggled to run the ball effectively; remove the 70-yard rush he had in a Week 9 win over the Detroit Lions, and he’s averaging just 2.5 yards per carry.
Fellow back Latavius Murray has been more efficient overall (4.5 yards per carry), but he’s slumped of late, gaining just 69 yards on 25 carries over the last three games. Vikings ball-carriers as a group rank 30th in the NFL in both yards per carry (3.9) and yards per game (85.3) and have as many fumbles (six) as rushing touchdowns.
5. Their defense is tops in the league in two key categories
Minnesota leads the NFL in third-down defense and red-zone defense — two areas New England has struggled in of late. The Vikings also rank near the top of the league in run defense (tied for fourth in yards allowed per game, third in yards allowed per carry) and sacks (tied for third) and boast Pro Bowlers or All-Pros at all three levels, including defensive end Everson Griffen, defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes left Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, but Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called that injury “very, very mild.” The Patriots surely will be monitoring his status closely this week.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter, a Pro Bowl snub in 2016, has perhaps been the NFL’s best edge rusher this season, ranking second in the league with 11 1/2 sacks and tied for first with 16 tackles for loss.
Thumbnail photo via Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports Images