Vikings' defense finally exerts itself heading into playoff position

CARSON, Calif. -- The Minnesota Vikings were already in firm position for the playoffs ahead of their Week 15 game against the Los Angeles Chargers. After winning 39-10 on a day where its defense remembered just what it’s capable of, the Vikings are even further in line to get back to the postseason in 2019.

Pivotal play: Minnesota’s pass defense was getting annihilated on third down. Ahead of halftime, the Vikings had a chance to march down the field and take a nine-point lead. Melvin Ingram III then sniffed out an obvious screen pass attempt and picked off Kirk Cousins to put the Chargers offense back on the field with 51 seconds to play in the second quarter.

Six plays later with Los Angeles just outside Minnesota’s red zone, third-year Vikings defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo broke open the game with a 56-yard scoop-and-score to give his team a 19-10 lead going into the half. The Vikings defense, which has stumbled at points this season, used that moment to rediscover its mojo and immediately punched the Chargers in the mouth on the first play of the third quarter when Shamar Stephen forced a fumble which was then recovered by Danielle Hunter.

The Vikings recorded seven takeaways against the Chargers -- four fumble recoveries and three interceptions -- which hasn’t happened since the 1995 season. Odenigbo balled out. Hunter balled out. Eric Kendricks almost assuredly solidified his Pro Bowl candidacy with the type of performance he put together in Week 15. Minnesota not only won the turnover battle in Los Angeles, it rediscovered its defensive muscle at a critical point of the season.

Running back depth tested: Dalvin Cook has been dealing with a chest injury since the Vikings Week 11 win over the Broncos. While he has yet to sit out a start, the running back has missed time in games since then, sustaining injury to his chest/shoulder in Seattle and again on Sunday when he was tackled on second-and-3 in the third quarter. Cook exited the game and did not return. Since Cook’s back up, rookie Alexander Mattison, was already sidelined with an ankle injury, Minnesota’s backfield was down to Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah and fullback C.J. Ham.

Boone, a former undrafted free agent, scored two touchdowns in Cook’s absence and allowed the Vikings’ rushing attack to stay afloat in the absence of its star back, topping 131 yards as a team.

NFC North in reach … sort of: The Vikings are all but locked into the sixth seed at this point. After Green Bay held off Chicago’s late push in Week 15 to capture a 21-13 win, Minnesota would need to win its final two games -- at home against the Packers and Bears -- and have Aaron Rodgers and company lose to Detroit in Week 17 in order to capture the division title. That doesn’t seem too likely to happen given the Lions dropped their seventh straight game on Sunday by allowing 308 yards passing and three touchdowns to Tampa Bay in the first 20 minutes of the game. Minnesota is in a position to control its own destiny the rest of the way and has a nice cushion in the NFC wild card race with the Rams losing to the Cowboys.