Courtney Cronin, ESPN Staff Writer 55d

Vikings' playoff priority: Get Dalvin Cook back healthy

MINNEAPOLIS -- Here's a glimpse into what Monday night's 23-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers looked like for the Minnesota Vikings' offense.

Minnesota totaled seven first downs, its fewest at home since 1971. The offense crossed the 50-yard line one time and quarterback Kirk Cousins proceeded to throw an interception on the following play. The longest drive the Vikings strung together was 31 yards. Wide receiver Adam Thielen had as many targets as fullback C.J. Ham (four) and finished with zero catches.

There's plenty of blame to assign from the Vikings' fifth loss of the season, which cost them their chance at earning the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs. An ineffective game plan, a woeful showing by the offensive line and Cousins' struggles all played a part in a dreadful performance that puts a damper on the final week of the regular season.

Monday's loss proved just how valuable running back Dalvin Cook is to this offense. Losing him for one full game exposed weaknesses they were not able to overcome despite what coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said last week about the game plan not changing.

The presence of Cook, who has rushed for 1,135 yards this season, alters the outlook for the Vikings. Getting him back as close to healthy as possible for the playoffs has to be their top priority. It's the same for backup Alexander Mattison, who sat out for a second straight game with a high ankle sprain.

In Cook and Mattison's absence, Minnesota rushed for 57 yards. Mike Boone didn't get very far on his 11 rushes (28 yards), nor did Ameer Abdullah (27 yards).

"I still have a lot of faith in the backs that played [Monday]," Zimmer said. "We didn't move the ball as effective as we wanted to, and so that's why the time of possession [37:32 to 22:28] was what it was. So we'll be all right."

All the positive things that come when Cook is on the field fell by the wayside against Green Bay. The Vikings generate the most yards off running back screens in the NFL. Those plays did not happen in Week 16 (literally -- Minnesota gained a total of zero yards off screens). Cousins leads the league in play-action touchdowns (13). He attempted five of those passes, completing just two for 14 yards and an interception. There were no effective outside runs (a likely byproduct of the backs they had in the game and the offensive line's limitations against Green Bay's front), and the offense was quickly made one-dimensional.

While Cook is a game-changer, the offense shouldn't require his presence every moment. The Vikings have debunked the notion that teams need a dominant run game to set up play-action, but in reality they need some semblance of the run to sell it effectively and keep teams guessing.

Cousins has been at his best with play-action when he's had a healthy Cook. The fact that the Vikings couldn't find a way to replicate that even slightly with their other backs shows just how difficult the offense's job becomes when he's not there.

Monday night might have actually been a win for Cook and his camp. The third-year running back will soon be eligible for a contract extension, and the leverage he gained with one absence further demonstrates how much Minnesota needs him. If Cook going down means the Vikings suddenly can't be effective offensively, that's a sign of a far bigger problem.

No matter how far the Vikings go in the playoffs, they'll soon be faced with a decision about Cook's future. Running backs aren't valued as highly in the current NFL climate, but Cook's impact and what happened in his absence could help him win out on negotiations. Monday proved that the Vikings' offense is lost without him. If they don't want that trend to continue, they may be willing to pay out big dollars so they don't have to find out what that's like long-term.

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