One team has seen its surprising early success come to a screeching halt. The other has a tenuous hold on the final NFC playoff spot after an up-and-down first half of the season.
When the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins meet at FedEx Field on Sunday, a critical NFC playoff tiebreaker could be up for grabs.
But the bigger question for both teams: Can they shake off brutal setbacks in recent weeks?
The Redskins (4-3-1) were beaten in the final minute three weeks ago in Detroit and followed that game with a baffling 27-27 tie against Cincinnati in London where kicker Dustin Hopkins missed a 34-yard kick in overtime.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has dropped three games in a row after a 5-0 start. The Vikings (5-3) once looked like the class of the NFC North. But after the Lions also handed them a stunning overtime loss last week — Minnesota was up by a field goal with 23 seconds to play in regulation — the recent skid has left them vulnerable.
“We have to get back to making sure that we execute what we’re trying to do as opposed to worrying too much about the Redskins,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “Obviously, you always try to attack the areas that you think you can attack. But for us in this week and where we’re at, it’s more about just us executing and doing the things we can do well.”
The Vikings offense hasn’t been very good without star running back Adrian Peterson (torn meniscus, right knee), who has been out since Sept. 18. Minnesota ranks 25th in points scored (19.4), last in yards per play (4.68) and yards per game (298.8) and 31st in rushing yards (72.6).
“Things haven’t shaped the way we’ve wanted them to, but it’s only a couple plays away,” said Minnesota wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a Maryland native who returns to play in front of friends and family in his home state. “We have the guys that hone in on everything that they want to get done each and every day. It’s going to shake the way it’s supposed to.”
The Vikings could find a tonic in a Washington defense that still struggles to get off the field on third downs (29th overall). The Redskins aren’t particularly stout on the defensive line and have issues at safety, where veteran Donte Whitner was signed Oct. 5 and is now the primary starter at strong safety.
The Redskins have already lost DeAngelo Hall (torn ACL, right knee) for the season and Will Blackmon, his backup, expects to play this week with a cast on his left hand for a broken thumb. Diggs (48 receptions) can expect to see plenty of star cornerback Josh Norman, who has been a magnet for fines and penalties this season, but remains one of the game’s most physical corners.
The key matchup is on the other side of the ball, however. The Redskins are without four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, who was suspended last week for violating the NFL’s substance abuse program. Ty Nsekhe takes over. This summer, Washington general manager Scot McCloughan insisted that Nsekhe, a journeyman who spent years in the Arena Football League before finally sticking in the NFL at age 29, could start for half the teams in the league.
Now 31, Nsekhe, a mammoth presence at 6-foot-8, 350 pounds, started two games for the Redskins last year and held up well enough. But the Vikings defensive front is excellent.
Even after three losses in a row they allow the fewest points per game in the league (15.8) and are eighth in rushing yards allowed (93.1).
Minnesota will see a Washington offense that ranks 14th in points per game (23.3). But the Redskins are dangerous with weapons all over the field for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is nursing a shoulder injury and didn’t practice on Wednesday, but expects to play after a bye week.
Jamison Crowder has 40 catches and has become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. Tight end Jordan Reed (42 catches) is a matchup nightmare, but veteran tight end Vernon Davis (23 receptions) has been dangerous, too. And the reliable Pierre Garcon (36 catches) is a go-to option for Cousins on third down.
The Vikings must win the battle at the line of scrimmage because if Washington figures out its red zone issues it will score. The Redskins are fourth in yards per game (410.3), but 30th in red zone percentage (40.63 percent).
Part of that is due to Cousins’ two red zone interceptions and a fumble by running back Matt Jones inside the 5-yard line in the Detroit game on Oct. 23. But defenses are taking away Cousins’ options, too.
“There are times where in the rhythm of the play guys aren’t going to always be open in the end zone,” Cousins said. “If teams play max coverages and cover people, maybe everyone’s not open and that’s where I look and say, ‘Can I scramble? Can I make a play off-schedule?'”
The Redskins have protected Cousins well by allowing sacks on only 3.42 percent of pass attempts. But Minnesota defensive ends Everson Griffen has six sacks and Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison have four apiece. Linval Joseph has three and is a big presence at nose tackle that Washington must account for without Williams.
“You hate to make one game more important than the other but these next two games in general are going to be important,” said Redskins coach Jay Gruden, whose team plays Green Bay, another NFC North title contender, at home the following Sunday night. “They’re two home games that are very, very big for us. We’re 4-3-1. We’re right now currently (the No. 6) seed but we’re in a position where we don’t have a lot of room for error.”
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