The Minnesota Vikings are holding down a playoff slot while the Miami Dolphins are battling to secure one.
Yet, when the Dolphins visit the Vikings on Sunday afternoon, Minnesota appears to be the more desperate team, coming off a pair of lackluster losses that led to the firing of offensive coordinator John DeFilippo earlier this week.
Minnesota is clinging to the sixth and final seed in the NFC, sitting a half-game ahead of Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington with three games to play. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer did not view the dismissal of DeFilippo as a season-saving move despite the fact his team scored a combined 17 points in its last two losses.
“I don’t know that it does,” Zimmer told reporters Wednesday. “I just felt like this is what we need to do at this particular time. I didn’t feel like we could continue to do what we’ve been doing the last few weeks and accomplish much that we want to do. It may work, it may not work.
“You get feelings and you trust your gut and it’s no difference than it’s fourth-and-8 and you have to call blitz. You meet it head on and you go. That is just the way we are going to do it.”
Zimmer promoted quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator to replace DeFilippo, finally giving the longtime Minnesota assistant a chance to direct the offense. Now comes the question of how much can Stefanski change an offense that has failed to reach 300 total yards in four of the past five games.
“I have a lot of time spent with coach Stefanski in the quarterback room for many months now, and he knows me well,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “But at the same time, you don’t reinvent much this late in the year. So, I think we’ll get back to business as usual today and just find a way to try to win these last three games, you know? We have so much to play for, and we have two home games, and the focus is on the Miami Dolphins now.”
Zimmer offered a “maybe” when asked if Stefanski will be in charge of calling plays, but he has been harping on the need to run the ball over the past few weeks. Minnesota ranks 30th in rushing, averaging a paltry 85.4 yards.
“I think we just want to be a balanced offense,” Minnesota center Pat Elflein said. “We want to run the ball and do play-actions and drop back and we want to be able to be efficient in all areas of offense, and there’s some that we are doing well at and some that we’re not doing well at.”
The Dolphins enhanced their postseason hopes with a stunning last-second victory over the New England Patriots. A series of laterals led to a 69-yard touchdown that has been dubbed the Miracle in Miami, keeping the team in a five-way logjam for the final playoff slot in the AFC.
The resilient Dolphins have overcome three losing streaks of two games each and the five-game injury absence of quarterback Ryan Tannehill to sport a 7-6 record. Miami must overcome another hurdle — the team is 1-5 away from home and has lost its last five road games.
“Some of it has to do with who you’re playing,” said Miami head coach Adam Gase. “We’ve played some really good teams on the road.”
Tannehill has thrown for eight touchdowns and one interception in the three games since his return. Although he is averaging 197.3 yards passing, he finished 14 of 19 for 265 yards — his second-highest total of the season — with three scores in the 34-33 win over New England.
Miami’s top weapon this season has been 35-year-old running back Frank Gore, who had 92 yards on 12 carries against the Patriots and leads the team in rushing yards (708) and average (4.7). Kenyan Drake, who rumbled the final 52 yards on last week’s winning touchdown, has amassed 829 yards from scrimmage and nine scores.
Tannehill’s top targets are wideouts Danny Amendola (team-high 49 receptions) and Kenny Stills (six touchdown grabs). On the other side of the field is the Minnesota tandem of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen leads the NFL with 103 receptions but has been limited to 10 catches for 98 yards over the past two games.
“What needs to change as far as execution is, we’ve got to score points,” said Cousins. “So that’s where our focus is, how do we score points? How do we execute play in and play out to make sure we’re getting in the end zone and coming away with enough points to win a game?”
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