The Buffalo Bills welcome the Minnesota Vikings to Highmark Stadium on Sunday afternoon in a juicy matchup featuring two division leaders. At 6-2, the Bills still control their destiny as they work toward a playoff push. That control is slipping, with just a half game keeping them atop their own division. Key work must be done to avert what could become a disappointment, and it starts in Orchard Park, NY against the NFC North-leading Vikings—a team currently well-positioned at 7-1 and staring at an opportunity to lock up their division by Thanksgiving.
Somehow, Minnesota continues to feel a bit overlooked as a legitimate contender in 2022. Not by me, nor by those who take the time to dive into their season. But it’s a thing, for sure. Many have said much will be learned about what the team is really made of in the next month. Yet, the Bills have stumbled twice against teams they were supposed to cast aside—in their own division—and they remain media darlings and favorites to represent the AFC as winners in February’s Super Bowl. The narratives are very different surrounding two teams similarly poised for success, yet Minnesota has to feel a bit like Rodney Dangerfield.
Not since 1999 have fans of the Bills and Vikings shared legitimate Super Bowl aspriations, so this season is full of optimism among both fanbases. If it came to be, a matchup between Buffalo and Minnesota would pit two franchises that have gone a combined 0-8 in their quest to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. For one team, the suffering would finally end. But there’s still a ton of football left before we can even begin to discuss playoffs and any talk of (what for me would be) a dream Super Bowl matchup.
There are plenty of storylines this week, with Wade Phillips’ son, Wes coaching with the Vikings, wide Stefon Diggs playing his former team for the first time, Case Keenum potentially starting against his former team (and throwing to Diggs again), and of course, defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier coaching against the team that made him a head coach.
It’s been a minute since Bills Mafia broke tables with Skol, so I relished the opportunity to chat with Christopher Gates at SB Nation’s Daily Norseman Vikings blog. With that, I’ll turn it over to my chat with Chris.
The Vikings are one of this season’s hottest teams, catching most outside fans and analysts by surprise. While every fan always thinks it’s Super Bowl or bust, were expectations this high from the fanbase, and is the Vikings’ success this season a direct result of anything specific on offense or defense?
I’m not sure if the expectations were super high from the fan base going into the season, to be honest. I think a lot of people expected a bounce as a result of the transition from Mike Zimmer to Kevin O’Connell, but this is likely far beyond anything that anyone expected, I think. As fans of a snakebitten team like ours, I think that Bills fans can relate to that feeling of knowing that no matter how well things are going, the other shoe is eventually going to drop like the big foot from the intro to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As far as what it can be attributed to, I don’t think you can overstate the change in culture that O’Connell and company have brought to the team. Too many times over the past couple of seasons, we saw situations where one thing would go wrong for the Vikings and everything would go to hell. They couldn’t handle adversity for whatever reason. O’Connell has this team believing in itself and feeling that they can win even if everything isn’t perfect. This team played 14 one-score games last year under Mike Zimmer and went 6-8 in those games. This year’s team has played in six one-score games already and they’ve gone 6-0. To me, that’s the hallmark of a team that’s buying into the new philosophy and is believing in itself, something that we didn’t see last season.
You may have heard that the Bills are struggling to stop the run the last two weeks. The Vikings run game—has it been a problem for opponents?
The Vikings’ run game has been hit-or-miss this season. They have games like they had against Washington last week and Philadelphia in Week 2 when the running game basically disappears, and then they put together games like they did leading up to the Washington game where Dalvin Cook was averaging more than five yards/carry in three straight games. If the Bills are having difficulty slowing down the run, particularly given what the conditions might be in Buffalo on Sunday, I’m sure that the Vikings will try to exploit that going forward. One of the other hallmarks of this team so far this year, however, is that they don’t necessarily feel that they only have one way to win. The Mike Zimmer era was a “three yards and a cloud of field turf particles” offense, regardless of what the opposing defense was doing well. Kevin O’Connell seems more willing to be flexible with his philosophy and playcalling and go with what works. I’m sure that the Vikings will try to establish the run on Sunday, but if they can’t do it they have the ability to move on to the passing game rather than continuing to try to force a run game that isn’t working effectively.
Since we don’t face one another that often, who are two under-the-radar players (one offense, one defense) Bills Mafia should get to know?
On offense, a guy to keep an eye on is WR K.J. Osborn. With Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and now T.J. Hockenson in the mix, Osborn doesn’t get a lot of press, but he’s a quality WR3 in an offense that has been going with 11 personnel a lot more frequently than they have in the past. Last season he caught 50 passes and found the end zone seven times, which was pretty impressive given that pretty much all of Vikings nation wanted him cut the year before because he played exclusively on special teams and was a disaster as a punt returner. If the Bills devote too much attention to Jefferson and Thielen, Osborn could potentially be an issue for them.
On defense, one of the Vikings’ more underrated players is safety Camryn Bynum. Bynum got an opportunity to start a couple of games last season as a rookie when Harrison Smith was out as part of the COVID protocols and acquitted himself pretty well. The Vikings’ other starting safety from last year, Xavier Woods, moved on to Carolina after last year, and most expected that the spot next to Smith in the secondary would go to first-round pick Lewis Cine. However, Bynum had gotten the nod over Cine, and with Cine suffering a terrible injury in the London game last month, Bynum has continued to provide solid play from the safety spot for the Vikings.
The trade for T.J. Hockenson seems to signal an all-in move by the team toward a Super Bowl berth. How was Hockenson able to come in and have such a profound immediate impact against the Washington Commanders—and can you speak a bit about what Hockensen helps the Vikings accomplish on offense?
Hockenson is, for lack of a better description, going to be to the Vikings’ offense what the Vikings spent three years expecting Irv Smith Jr. to turn into. Hockenson is a guy that can get open and create yards after the catch, which is what Kevin O’Connell’s offense needs from the tight end position. An example of that is what Tyler Higbee brought to the Rams’ offense as their offensive coordinator, but I don’t think you’d find anyone that would declare that Higbee is a better player than Hockenson. As far as how he got up to speed so quickly, it was reported that he got a lot of help from quarterback David Blough, who he was teammates with in Detroit for a number of years and who now serves as the Vikings’ #3 quarterback from the practice squad. The guy studied his tail off for four days and then played around 90% of the snaps for the Vikings and an offense he wasn’t intimately familiar with. That speaks quite a bit to just how serious Hockenson wants to be a contributor to this team, I think.
Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter are nightmares to contend with for any offensive lineman. How would you go about stopping them as an offensive coordinator?
The best way for an offense to slow down any group of pass rushers is to try to establish the running game as best they can and attempt to use play-action to slow down whatever pass rush there might be. If the Vikings can keep the Bills from getting into second or third-and-manageable situations, it will allow Ed Donatell to more or less unleash the guys like Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter. To the credit of Hunter and Smith, though, that doesn’t always work either. Both of them are such great athletes, particularly Hunter, that even if they make a mistake initially they have the ability to make up for it pretty quickly. If I’m the Bills, I try to do everything I can to not leave Smith or Hunter on an island one-on-one with my offensive tackles, because that could potentially make for a long afternoon for the Bills no matter who they play at quarterback.
The current DraftKings line casts the Vikings as 3-point underdogs. The line seems to be quickly shrinking, perhaps due to Josh Allen’s injury situation and availability both up in the air. Do you agree with the current line, or feel the Vikings aren’t being given enough credit for their ability to win this game no matter who plays for Buffalo?
Obviously, Allen not being out there makes this significantly easier for the Vikings, and I don’t think anyone would deny that. Case Keenum is a solid quarterback, as we in Minnesota can attest to, but Allen is just a freak and can do things that, like, two or three other NFL quarterbacks can do on a regular basis. I think it’s possible for the Vikings to win this game with Allen at quarterback, but I certainly wouldn’t be placing a wager on it. As far as the point spread, I think that it sounds just about right. Buffalo is a tough place to play, regardless of how good or bad the Bills are, and the effects of the elements make it too difficult to predict a blowout in one direction or another. The Vikings have to feel like this is an opportunity for them to get people to stop talking about how lucky they are and how they’re actually just a pretty good football team. I think they’ll be fired up for this one and I’d expect a close, solid game, so 3 points sounds like a decent enough spread to me.
My thanks to Chris for taking the time to chat with me about all things Bills-Vikings this week. There is still a great deal of unknown about who’ll play for the Buffalo, especially at quarterback. But no matter who starts, it’s sure to provide a heavy dose of entertainment for fans. Be sure to head over to Daily Norseman to read my responses to Chris’ questions about the Bills!