Being one win away from a Super Bowl appearance last season and armed with an upgrade at quarterback, the Minnesota Vikings expected to be one of the front-runners for the Lombardi Trophy in 2018.
While quarterback Kirk Cousins has lived up to his mega-deal for the most part, the Vikings have been a disappointment in the standings, currently sitting in second place in the NFC North with a 6-5-1 record and fighting for their playoff lives.
Playoff positioning with a month left in the regular season should come dashed with a grain of salt; much can still happen in the NFL to affect the playoff picture.
The Vikings know the realization well. They know, despite holding the final wild-card spot in the NFC heading into Week 14 and Monday night's game at Seattle, that the next four weeks will determine everything.
"Which means all of the work we did through OTAs, training camp, preseason, regular season, it comes down to four games," Cousins said Thursday about being the current sixth seed. "It comes down to other teams are in the hunt, other teams are fighting for their division title and whoever has the best four-game stretch. It doesn't really matter what happened before."
Despite these struggles, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll holds great respect for the Vikings heading into Monday's "tough matchup" with postseason implications galore. He's especially concerned about the presence of Cousins piloting Minnesota's high-octane passing attack.
"It just seems he's at his very, very best," Carroll said when assessing Cousins. "As the guys keep growing, he's the same year I think as Russ (Wilson), they just keep getting better as they grow and learn and they have great coaching and they just take advantage of it. They continue to become more in command of the game. He looks like he's totally got it wired."
After signing a three-year fully guaranteed deal worth $84 million in March, Cousins has thrown 23 touchdown passes and completed a career-best 71.3 percent of his throws in his first season with Minnesota. He's quickly developed a rapport with top targets Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, connecting on 15 combined touchdown passes with the league's best receiving duo.
Thielen has evolved into one of best receivers in the game, as the ex-Minnesota State product has already caught 98 passes for 1,166 yards this season. As for Diggs, despite battling through some injuries over the course of the year, he has still produced 84 receptions and 839 receiving yards.
"They seem extremely well connected with Cousins. The intricacies of the things that they're running, the timing that they're able to show consistently on really good concept stuff," Carroll said in regard to Thielen and Diggs. "The guys come through and make the catches, they're both good after the catch, they both get down the field. They're possession guys, they're down-the-field guys, they have all that ability in them. ... The execution is as good as it gets."
The Seahawks ranked among the league's best at defending the pass during the first half of the season, but Carroll's secondary has regressed over the past few weeks.
Two weeks ago, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton completed all 14 of his first-half pass attempts. Even against a third-string quarterback in San Francisco's Nick Mullens last weekend, Seattle surrendered over 400 passing yards, a problematic development as the team pushes for a playoff berth.
Playing against one of the best passing teams in the league, Carroll didn't sound overly concerned about the yardage totals given up in recent weeks. But he knows that a young secondary featuring second-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin, rookie cornerback Tre Flowers, and second-year free safety Tedric Thompson will have to tackle more effectively than they did last week when working against stud receivers such as Thielen and Diggs.
Wanting to avoid a repeat performance from last weekend, Carroll told reporters, "We missed three crucial tackles that were worth about 80 yards after the miss. So, it's a couple errors we need to clean up and the tackling needs to be better and the game would be different."
Fitting in nicely with Carroll's primary theme about finishing, tackling will be vital on Monday. Thielen (309 yards) and Diggs (293 yards) both rank in the top 20 among NFL receivers in yards after the catch, possessing the ability to make defenders miss and pick up big chunks of yardage while presenting a major test for Seattle's secondary.
As always, Carroll welcomes the challenge and understands what's at stake for his team with only four games left.
He said, "We need tough matchups with teams that really challenge us in many ways and this is one of them for sure. So we've got to get it cranked up, have a good week, and get ready to go for a big opportunity on Monday night."