For a coach who’s long said he loves proving people wrong — and seemed to take delight in felling the statistical narratives that periodically form around his teams — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer can put a big prize in his cross hairs on Monday night.
The Vikings’ task is this: Travel west of home (where they’ve won just once in six tries and lost three times at night since 2014), face a perennial NFC contender that’s been indomitable at home, stare down a Super Bowl-winning QB in the midst of an MVP-caliber season … and win.
If they can do that, they will keep themselves in commanding playoff position ahead of a favorable schedule in the final quarter of the season. They will also have what might be their most impressive victory outside of Minnesota since Zimmer’s first win at Lambeau Field to claim the 2015 NFC North title.
There’s a case to be made that no team in the NFL — especially since the Vikings have turned the Packers from overlord to worthy opponent — has caused Minnesota more heartache in the Zimmer era than the Seahawks, who have remained the gold standard for NFC consistency even as they have made the transition from defensive stalwarts to high-scoring dynamos.
There are only three teams the Vikings have played more than once, and not beaten, since Zimmer took over in 2014: the Patriots, Bills and Seahawks. Of those three, the Seahawks are the only one the Vikings have played three times and lost.
Seattle’s first victory, a 38-7 drubbing at TCF Bank Stadium on Dec. 6, 2015, remains tied with the 2018 NFC Championship Game for the Vikings’ second-most lopsided loss under Zimmer. Five weeks later, the Seahawks came back from a 9-0 deficit in the NFC wild-card playoffs, winning the third-coldest game in NFL history after Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal. And last year, even as the Vikings forced Russell Wilson into one of the worst games of his career, they were shut out for nearly 59 minutes in a 21-6 loss that led Zimmer to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
This year, the Seahawks complemented their run game with the addition of receivers D.K. Metcalf and Josh Gordon, liberating Wilson to become one of the NFL’s most aggressive downfield passers. They are 9-2, in line to take the NFC West lead with a Monday victory after winning eight games by eight points or fewer, and they are 18-2 at home in prime-time games since Pete Carroll became coach in 2010.
A victory, in other words, would burnish the Vikings’ credentials as a team that can win anywhere in January.
“Tremendous opportunity for us to go on the road and play one of the better teams in our conference,” Zimmer said. “They’ve got an outstanding defense, really stout up front. [Jadeveon] Clowney is a heck of a player. [Jarran] Reed is, also. Offensively, Russell Wilson is a handful, maybe one of the best players in the league. [Chris] Carson runs the ball hard. Big offensive line, so we’re going to have to go out there and play really well, make less mistakes than they do and hopefully come back with a win.”
West Coast woes
Precise, efficient football has been hard for the Vikings to come by as they have traveled west, playing through a phenomenon that’s long affected teams making the trip from the country’s two easternmost time zones.
A Stanford University study in the 1990s analyzed 25 years of Monday night results and found West Coast teams won 63% of the time while playing East Coast teams. Since 2006, teams from the Central or Eastern time zones are 18-38 while playing night games on Pacific time.
Since the NFL’s TV contracts are all national (unlike the NBA, NHL and MLB, where teams have their own local rightsholders), the league normalizes its start times to accommodate national audiences. While that means the Vikings don’t have to deal with games that start after 9 p.m. Central time (with the exception of their season-opening Monday night loss to the 49ers in 2015), they are still facing opponents whose circadian rhythms are set to Pacific time, where night games routinely end around 8:30 p.m.
That, coupled with a long flight and an excess of idle time before kickoff, can make it difficult for visiting players to perform at their highest levels.
“The few times we’ve done it, I’ve definitely noticed a difference in your energy levels, things like that — especially with how many noon games we’ve played this year,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “When you’re able to just wake up and go, it’s a lot different feeling than when you’re sitting they’re all day — plus, it’s a time difference. … I think it’s good to just be cognizant of that, and understand you may have to start your routine at a similar time as you would to a noon game, try to figure out a way to get those energy levels up and feel normal.”
The Vikings flew to the West Coast a day early before night games vs. the Rams and Seahawks last year, in an effort to get acclimated to the time zone change. After losing both games, this time they waited until the day before the game and flew west on Sunday.
“Especially on a night game, it’s too long to be over there for a night game,” Zimmer said. “We’re just trying to keep the routine as best we can.”
Seattle’s other unique challenge, to go with its difficult travel and deafening home environment, is its quarterback.
Wilson is on pace for perhaps the best season of his career, having thrown for 24 touchdowns against just three interceptions in 11 games. His 112.1 passer rating is the NFL’s second-best, behind only Kirk Cousins, and he has run for 271 yards and three scores, while also using his mobility to extend plays and set up downfield shots. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Wilson has averaged 7.2 air yards per completion, the fourth-highest figure in the league.
“I don’t want to say he’s the main reason, but he’s the big reason they’re playing the way they’re playing,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He makes great throws, great decisions. You’ve seen a couple games, I think in San Fran, he threw one where he just lobbed it in the end zone and [tight end Jacob Hollister] just fell down and caught the ball? Like, plays like that — you have tight coverage, and the tight end just falls off and catches it for a touchdown. Perfect throw — nothing you can do about that.”
The Seahawks, Rhodes suspects, probably practice some of the plays that appear to be Wilson’s great unscripted moments. But the result is the same — the quarterback who is 5-0 in his career against the Vikings stands as one of their toughest challenges.
“We can’t miss the opportunity to get to him,” Rhodes said. “If we’re coming down, we can’t miss the tackle. There’s a good chance he’s going to give his receivers like 13 seconds. He’s going to do something to get his team in the best situation.”
Wilson and the Seahawks have made a habit of capitalizing on situations like the Vikings will attempt to handle on Monday night.
If the Vikings are successful, they will remain tied with the Packers for the division lead — or put themselves in position to play a middling NFC East team they have already beaten as the conference’s top wild card. A loss would force them to win out and hope for another Green Bay loss to win the division, or face the possibility of heading to the postseason as the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
The stakes are high, as the Vikings try to slay one of their biggest foes in the Zimmer era.
“It seems like a lot of these games are loud stadiums, a national TV audience; it starts to feel like another game because that’s kind of become the norm,” Cousins said. “I don’t know of a game we play where it’s kind of lackadaisical and not that much intensity or not that much on the line. But certainly, a night game in Seattle, with two teams that are having good seasons so far, there’s a lot there. I think that’s what makes it fun.”