Every so often on Wednesday mornings, the "two little angels" — or perhaps they're devils, Mike Zimmer says — show up in the coach's office, armed with GPS data about how hard players have worked in the past few days and which ones might be due for a break.
This week, head strength and conditioning coach Josh Hingst and head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman were united in their message: After a physical game in San Francisco, where the 49ers ran the ball for 208 yards and kept the Vikings' defense on the field for 37:07, players needed to rest.
So for the second time in 21 days, the Vikings turned their Wednesday practice — ordinarily their most important of the week — into a walk-through, betting on extra recovery over extra repetitions.
"They actually talked me into it today. I had them both in my office this morning," Zimmer said Wednesday. "They were both saying the same thing today, and usually I'm the one saying the opposite most of the time. I tell them, 'We better win, or it's...'"
Zimmer trailed off, but it's not hard to imagine what he might have said in response. The coach was raised in an era of longer and more grueling practices, and still believes on-field work is where players learn best. On Wednesday, he still sounded cautious about granting the walk-through, given the practice snaps it would cost young players.
"It's hard for me, anyway, but we do have some older players that we have to take care of," Zimmer said. "There's a fine line with some of the young guys that ... don't get as good [of] work as they would, but I think it's important that we continue to try to stay fresh. Like I told them this morning, they've been emptying their buckets for me and for them each and every week, so I'm trying to take care of them so they can do that again on Sunday."
In addition to the walk-throughs after the Ravens and 49ers games, the Vikings have given Wednesday rest days to Harrison Smith three times, Everson Griffen twice and Patrick Peterson, Rashod Hill and Adam Thielen once each.
While they'll head to Detroit without the services of running back Dalvin Cook (out with a dislocated shoulder), left tackle Christian Darrisaw (ankle injury) and safety Camryn Bynum (ankle injury), injuries haven't taken their key players off the field all that much this season. The Vikings have suffered the ninth-lowest injury impact in the NFL this season, as measured by the Lost AV metric from Man Games Lost, which is derived from Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value statistic to quantify the importance of injured players.
Especially with Peterson on the COVID-19 reserve list and Griffen away from the team to treat his mental health, the Vikings' careful approach to keep their roster together could be as important as ever in their final six games. If their current decision-makers are to be around for another December and January, the team might need to be better in this one than it's been in the past three.
After going 11-8 in December and January during Zimmer's first four seasons — including a 4-1 December in 2017 to clinch a first-round bye — the Vikings are 6-9 in December/January games the past three years, having lost key matchups that cost them playoff spots in 2018 and 2020 and relegated them to a wild-card spot in 2019.
In each of those seasons, their defense lagged at a key moment. In 2018, it was the Bears marching 75 yards in 16 plays, draining 9:05 off the clock and icing a game the Vikings needed to reach the playoffs. In 2019, the Seahawks ran for 226 yards and the Packers for 184 in December wins; Seattle claimed a higher wild-card spot than the Vikings, and Green Bay clinched the NFC North title on a 56-yard Aaron Jones touchdown at U.S. Bank Stadium.
And last year, with the Vikings entering December in a battle for the NFC's seventh and final playoff spot after a 1-5 start, they lost three straight, giving up 199 rushing yards to the Bears in a game that helped send Chicago to the playoffs before the Saints ran for 264 and Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns on Christmas Day.
Just like last year, the Vikings are 5-6 heading into December, with six games left to separate themselves from a crowded NFC playoff field. They are currently eighth in the conference, trailing Washington on a tiebreaker, but their schedule includes Sunday's game against the winless Lions, a Thursday home game against the struggling Steelers and the first of two matchups with the 4-7 Bears, before things get tougher with back-to-back games against the Rams and Packers.
"Football don't start 'til November, December," cornerback Bashaud Breeland said. "That's how I look at it. The first couple weeks of games in the season, you're trying to find everybody, put in new pieces, coaches are trying to find their roster. And when it comes to playoffs, that's when you put everything together. Guys got out the kinks early in the season, played plenty of games. Now it's time to hone in and win some games."
In Zimmer's tenure, the Vikings have won at a .613 clip in October and a .645 rate in November, good for eighth and fifth-best in the league during those months. They rank 13th in December and January, with an overall mark that's dipped to .500 because of the struggles the past three years.
If it'll take four wins in the final six games to make the playoffs at 9-8, the Vikings have the schedule to get there. They'll likely get Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce back on Sunday, fortifying the middle of their run defense. Kirk Cousins, Thielen and Justin Jefferson have remained healthy, with Jefferson saying this week he feels better than he did in college because practices are less intense in the NFL.
"That's why I love this league so much," he said. "I feel like college practices are always high-energy; everybody's going 100%. It's like that in the NFL, too, but people know how to take care of their bodies, knowing how to practice, knowing which speeds to go at.
"We all take care of ourselves. Coach is also doing a good job taking care of us. It's just taking care of our bodies, making sure that we're not doing too much at practice, but also executing our plays and taking mental reps."
For their schedule to extend further into January, they'll have to walk that line with skill.
"We just need to be consistent," Jefferson said. "I feel like we have the top team in the NFL, when we come to play."