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Vikings Talk: Vikings team reporter Eric Smith

Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Aldrick Rosas (7) celebrates his 54-yard field goal against the Cleveland Browns with punter Logan Cooke (9) and offensive tackle Cam Robinson (74) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2020 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

Minnesota Vikings team reporter Eric Smith on the Vikings as they enter Sunday's game against the Jaguars at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

Question: The Vikings are 5-6 with victories in four of their last five games. This team typically has contended for the postseason in recent seasons and it's fighting back into contention. How do the Vikings feel about themselves entering Sunday?

Answer: They feel good this week, but that vibe has kind of changed week to week the last few weeks. They started 1-5 heading into bye and that's not where the team wanted to be. They come out of the bye, win three straight, have a lot of momentum – and the positivity and outlook are on the rise. They lose to Dallas and drop back down, then have a wild victory over the Carolina Panthers Sunday and things are back up. It has been a roller-coaster season for the Vikings. I guess in 2020 that's maybe the norm. Entering Week 13, the Vikings feel good – but they know they still have quite a bit of work to do to get in the playoff picture in the NFC. They're currently a game behind the Arizona Cardinals and there's still a good amount of work left to be done.

Q: The Vikings seemed out of contention much of the season. But they don't have to feel that way entering December.

A: They feel like they're still in it. It has kind swayed week to week, but the resilience they showed Sunday against the Panthers in a [28-27] come-from-behind victory really lifted their spirits. But the Vikings have almost no margin for error right now. They have to keep going and keep winning.

Q: Why are they better the last five games?

A: Turnovers – or the lack of turnovers – have helped. [Quarterback] Kirk Cousins threw a handful of interceptions early in the season. Some were his fault and some weren't. He has played great in November. The Vikings played five games in November and won four of them; Kirk was a big reason. In the month of November, Kirk completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 1,293 yards with 12 touchdowns and just one interception – and that one pick bounced off [wide receiver] Adam Thielen's hands. We know that [running back] Dalvin Cook is having a great season. He's second in the league in rushing [with 1,130 yards] and leads the league in rushing touchdowns [with 13], but the defense has also turned a little bit of a corner. There were some ups and downs with that young unit, but they have made more plays over the last five games.

Q: How would you describe this offense? Is it Cook first? What are the Vikings offensively when they're good?

A: It's definitely a run-first offense and that's something [Head Coach] Mike Zimmer has preached for a while. He wants his team to be tough and physical at the line of scrimmage; there's certainly a run-first mentality here in Minnesota – and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak also believes in that. That worked for a lot of the season, and when the Vikings get an early lead that kind of plays right into their hands. It has kind of turned a little bit in the last few games. Cousins kind of had to take on the starring role a little bit and lead the team. So, while the team wants to be run-first, they certainly have the ability to throw it around. We've seen that with Adam Thielen and [wide receiver] Justin Jefferson and [tight end] Kyle Rudolph and a handful of other players.

Q: Is this is a defense that has improved as the season has continued?

A: That's what we've seen. There was quite a bit of turnover on that unit in the offseason, especially at cornerback. And then with no [defensive end] Danielle Hunter this season (because of a neck issue) – and with Anthony Barr being lost for the season Week 2 (with a torn pectoral) and with [nose tackle] Michael Pierce opting out [because of COVID-19] – there definitely are a bunch of fresh faces and new names on that defense. But Zimmer has maybe worked as hard as he ever has and done as good a coaching job as he ever has to turn that unit around from the early-season struggles. They're certainly not perfect, and Zimmer will tell you that heading into Week 13, but they keep chipping away. They keep making plays. If that unit can keep progressing, that should help down the stretch as well.

Q:What's the key for the Vikings over these last five games?

A:On offense, it's running the ball and hitting play-action shots. It's kind of being who they are: being a tough offense and getting Dalvin Cook going. He's certainly the focal point, but as the season has gone on, they've learned they have plenty other playmakers around whether that's Thielen or Jefferson – who is probably in the short conversation for Offensive Rookie of the Year. They lean on Dalvin first, but there are certainly other options that can make the offense click. On defense, a big emphasis and focus is on excelling in the red zone. I don't want to call it a bend-but-don't-break approach, but that's kind of what it has turned out to be for most of this season.

Q:What's success look like the rest of the season for the Vikings? Do they have to make the playoffs? Or considering their 1-5 start, would a winning record be enough?

A:I would say success at this point would be making the playoffs, because that's the standard that has been set here in Minnesota under Mike Zimmer and that that was the preseason expectation. It has been a weird year in 2020 with a lot of weird stuff happening, but if they started 1-5 and ended up in the postseason – no matter how they get there – I think the team would take that. Given the uniqueness of this season, once you get in who knows what can happen? I think it would also be a big testament to Zimmer and his coaching staff and the players – to get in the playoffs after starting 1-5. Zimmer has always preached a tough, greedy mentality. He's an-old school coach and even when the team was 1-5, they didn't quit and they kept playing, kept fighting hard. If they can do that down the stretch, then that that will bode well for him and be a testament to how he has done as a coach.

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