Is this the week? Is this the week the Minnesota Vikings put together an inspired performance at U.S. Bank Stadium against a formidable opponent?
The Kansas City Chiefs will not make it easy. They are the defending Super Bowl champions, a juggernaut coached by future Hall of Famer Andy Reid and quarterbacked by Patrick Mahomes. The Vikings, meanwhile, are trying to claw their way back to the top of the NFC North.
A win would go a long way toward that goal. To assess the potential path to victory, The Athletic’s Alec Lewis and Jon Krawczynski are here for our weekly preview.
What I’m watching
Lewis: Kirk Cousins. The Vikings need the best version of the veteran quarterback to pull off an upset Sunday. He cannot throw interceptions like he did on the first drive against the Carolina Panthers. He cannot botch pre-snap checks against Steve Spagnuolo’s quirky defensive looks. The margin for error is slim, but that was always going to be the case for a team built around its passing attack. Throwing the football is the Vikings’ biggest strength. Cousins has to show up in meaningful games like this one. This is not about the “he doesn’t perform under the bright lights” narrative. Nor is this to say that he has not had a successful season thus far. It’s just the reality: This is a time for Cousins’ best.
LIVE: QB Kirk Cousins talks to the media https://t.co/qBYjSVJzPp
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 4, 2023
Krawczynski: Marcus Davenport. One of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s biggest moves of the offseason just wasn’t in the picture throughout training camp, the preseason and the start of the season. He had only half a sack all last season, so how big of an impact could be expected? Really big, as it turns out. Davenport was a wrecking ball against Carolina, constantly disrupting the Panthers’ passing and running games. The force with which he played also helped free up Harrison Smith to have the game-wrecking performance he did. His presence just made the Vikings defense feel different. Sunday figures to be his first extended snaps at home, so I want to see what he can do with the crowd behind him.
Lewis: Chris Jones against the interior of the Vikings offensive line. Jones is a menace of the highest order and, at 6 feet 6, 310 pounds, wrecks games weekly. Last week, he spun off a New York Jets double-team and corralled running back Breece Hall out of nowhere. He does things that two people combined seemingly could not do. Pair that with the shakiness of the interior of the Vikings offensive line against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles and you can understand my concern.
Krawczynski: Ummmm … Patrick Mahomes? This is the insight you pay for, right? The Vikings defense was impressive last week against Bryce Young. The rookie quarterback, playing in a system short on weapons, seemed to be overwhelmed. The Vikings will not have the same luxury against Mahomes and Reid. The Chiefs will not be surprised by anything thrown at them. They have not been hitting on all cylinders yet, but they have the best player in the league in his prime, one who handles the blitz better than any quarterback out there. So that is a concern.
Most interesting player-versus-player battle
Lewis: Justin Jefferson versus Trent McDuffie. McDuffie does not have the credentials of Darius Slay or Jaire Alexander, but he is one of the ascending cornerbacks in the NFL. The Chiefs selected him 21st in the 2022 NFL Draft, and he immediately stepped in and graded well. He can play all over the field — on the outside and at nickel — and has held Garrett Wilson, Christian Kirk and others mostly in check this season. Jefferson, of course, is a different test entirely. But it’s always fun watching how a defender plays Jefferson for the first time.
How the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson is on pace to do what no receiver has ever done
Krawczynski: Byron Murphy Jr. versus Travis Kelce. Yes, I know the DB probably won’t be head-to-head against the best tight end in the game a ton, but it seems like he’s planning on getting in his space. “I’m going to say something to him to get him going,” Murphy said this week. Are we sure that’s a good idea? It might be more advisable to stay quiet and hope Kelce is overwhelmed with all of the attention that has come his way courtesy of Taylor Swift. Don’t poke this bear. Let him sleep.
Most interesting storyline
Lewis: Ed Ingram, Dalton Risner and the configuration of the Vikings offensive line. More than two weeks ago, Minnesota signed Risner, an experienced guard, to a $2.25 million guaranteed contract for the season. He has yet to play. He has rarely participated in reps with the starters. Meanwhile, Ingram, whom Adofo-Mensah drafted in the second round in 2022, remains the starter at right guard. His play has wavered, but some inside the building, like offensive coordinator Wes Phillips, have spoken positively about Ingram’s development. Will the team stick with him? If so, why commit so much money to Risner? If not, when will the Vikings replace him? It’s an interesting situation, only exacerbated by Chris Jones’ arrival.
Asked Vikings OC Wes Phillips today how he’d evaluate RG Ed Ingram through four weeks. Here’s what he had to say: pic.twitter.com/FzjUGMYAkn
— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) October 5, 2023
Krawczynski: The Vikings running game is starting to get going. As Alec wrote this week, they have improved from 21st in success rate per rush in the first two weeks to third with strong performances against the Los Angeles Chargers and Panthers. I really like the addition of Cam Akers to the mix. He is bringing some much-needed juice to that spot, and Alexander Mattison has been productive as well, as long as he hangs on to the ball. Cousins and Jefferson were carrying the load offensively early, which is what they get paid to do. But the Vikings will be more dangerous if they can at least have the threat of a running game. If they can get going on the ground Sunday, it could keep Mahomes off the field, which would be advisable.
Why the Vikings might actually be a more dangerous team than you’d think
Schematic matchup to keep in mind
The last time Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores schemed up a game plan against Mahomes was 2020. Flores was the head coach of the Miami Dolphins then, and the Chiefs had Tyreek Hill. Kansas City won that game 33-27, and Mahomes finished 24-for-34 for 393 yards. He did, however, throw three interceptions. The Dolphins featured Xavien Howard and Byron Jones in the defensive backfield and played a lot of man coverage that day — 57.4 percent of the time, according to TruMedia. This Vikings team ranks 19th in the league in man coverage usage at 22.9 percent. Its cornerbacks are much younger and less experienced. But will the Vikings play tighter in coverage against a fairly unaccomplished Chiefs receiving corps (outside of Kelce)? It feels like a possibility.
Lewis: Chiefs 31, Vikings 27. And no Taylor Swift (sorry, Jon, I know that’ll upset you). Minnesota’s offense can stick with Kansas City’s if it doesn’t turn the ball over. Defensively, though, I’m having a hard time coming up with a way for the Vikings to slow down Mahomes that doesn’t involve some wacky turnover fortune — which, come to think of it, maybe the Vikings are due.
Krawczynski: Chiefs 26, Vikings 24. You never want to play Mahomes. But it feels like this is about as good a time as any to see him. The Chiefs receivers have been underwhelming, and the high-flying offense just hasn’t looked as explosive as usual in the early going this season. Still, I think they’ll do enough to beat Flores’ blitzes and squeak by the Vikings. The Kansas City defense has been good this season. Even getting to 24 might be a chore.
2023 Vikings week-by-week predictions
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(Photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)
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