Knowing they would be playing in January likely factored into the Vikings' decision to sit backup running back Alexander Mattison, who is dealing with a high ankle sprain, against the Green Bay Packers on Monday night to get their backfield back to full health. Minnesota was already without Dalvin Cook (chest), who was inactive, and is expected to sit him the final week of the season, sources told ESPN.
It might have also been the reason Minnesota didn't pull out more stops to beat a Green Bay team it could face again on wild-card weekend (or the Saints or Seahawks, depending on the results from Week 17), opting for a conservative game plan that plagued the Vikings' offense. The Packers clinched the NFC North Division with a 23-10 victory over the Vikings, who are now locked into the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoff picture.
Both offenses had moments when they were atrocious, but the Vikings won that title outright despite winning the turnover battle. Teams are 80-9 this season when winning the turnover battle by two. The Vikings were 3-0 in such situations before Monday night's loss.
Minnesota closes out the season at home against the Chicago Bears in an essentially meaningless game that has no bearing on playoff positioning. The only focus for the Vikings are making sure they're at full health for the playoffs, from Cook to Mattison to linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, who sustained injuries that forced them to leave the Packers game early.
QB breakdown: Kirk Cousins still doesn't have a win on Monday Night Football (0-9 career record). Green Bay's pass rush, led by Za'Darius Smith, stifled Cousins and his offensive line from the jump. Cousins was pressured on 47% of his dropbacks, which was his highest rate of the season, and sacked five times. Beyond that, Minnesota's playcalling did little to help Cousins in just about every situation. Cousins passed for 122 yards, 49 of which came on two passes to Stefon Diggs, including Minnesota's sole touchdown. What's even more baffling is the fact that Cousins leads the NFL in play-action touchdowns (13) and attempted just five such passes.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Where were the boots? It's possible that the Vikings were saving their big, explosive plays by way of play-action for the playoffs, should they see the Packers again, but the fact that Cousins attempted just one play-action pass in the first half and finished 2-of-5 for 14 yards and an interception on such throws was jarring. While teams don't necessarily need to establish the run to set up an effective play-action attack, the Vikings didn't even attempt to dial it up against the Packers. The reasoning for that could be the fact that without Cook, it's hard to sell the threat of the run. The other thing to keep in mind was how good the Packers were at sniffing out bootlegs during their Week 2 meeting with the Vikings. Minnesota quickly became one-dimensional, and did it to itself.
Cook gained some important leverage on Monday night. In his absence, Mike Boone totaled 11 carries for 28 yards and Ameer Abdullah had four carries for 27 yards. This offense is vastly different without the explosive, do-it-all Cook, who will be eligible for a contract extension at the end of the 2019 season. Minnesota has never missed Cook more than it did on Monday and may appreciate him even more after realizing what its offense looks like when he's not there.
Defense does its job: The silver lining after a rough night for the offense was how well Minnesota's defense played for the majority of the game. Mike Zimmer's D gave the offense a handful of opportunities starting on the first drive of the game when Barr forced a fumble that was recovered by Kendricks. The offense trotted onto the field with the opportunity to take a 7-0 lead in the opening moments of the game. Instead, the Vikings settled for a field goal. The Vikings' two fumble recoveries and Anthony Harris' interception in the first half gave the offense starting field position at the Packers' 10-, 26- and 48-yard line. The offense failed to capitalize on those gifts from the defense, turning out just 10 points after winning the turnover battle. The good news is that in back-to-back weeks, Minnesota's defense looked like its old self, which is important if it has to bail out the offense in January.