EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings co-owner Zygi Wilf walked through rows of players while they stretched, pausing to shake hands, share an occasional embrace and exchange pleasantries at the start of practice on Thursday. Wilf watched the team he has owned since 2005 along with his brother, Mark, get ready for its NFC wild-card game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
To be one of the final 12 teams standing with a chance to compete for a championship creates an air of excitement for any ownership. But outside the walls of the Vikings' facility, the air around the team is anything but joyous.
The excitement has been replaced by the reality that Minnesota has to contend with the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (36.3 points per game since Week 10), which features a future Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) and a receiver (Michael Thomas) in the midst of an MVP-level season. The Vegas line has Minnesota as a 7.5-point underdog, but the odds rooted in perception barely give the Vikings a shot to beat the Saints.
Their ending the season on a two-game losing streak is part of the reason the Vikings haven't been hyped entering the postseason. Maybe the fact that they have to play the 13-3 Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where history hasn't been kind to the Vikings in the playoffs, ripped the belief right out from under them. Plus, they are a team with a quarterback who has failed to come through in big games and a defense that has been through many ups and downs this season.
Even though this team strung together its third 10-win season and third playoff berth since coach Mike Zimmer arrived in 2014, it appears as though everything could fall apart with a loss on Sunday. Depending on how bad that loss might be, the Vikings franchise as we know it could soon look very different.
Here's a look at what's at stake on Sunday for several key figures.
Kirk Cousins, QB
Cousins hasn't been able to escape the narrative that he struggles in big games, despite his putting up MVP-level numbers in 2019. He's fifth in completion percentage (69.1) and fourth in passer rating (107.4) to go with 3,603 yards, 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. The big question is whether he will again stumble on the big stage.
He is 0-9 in his career on Monday Night Football -- worst in NFL history -- and his 0-15 record against teams that finished with a .700 or better win percentage is the worst among all quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This is just the second time that he has started a playoff game, and he lost the other, a 2015 game with the Redskins.
Numbers such as those are sure to put a damper on the belief that the Vikings can contend with a team such as the Saints and their explosive offense. If things don't change going into a game with the highest expectations of his career, Cousins' time in Minnesota could be limited.
The Vikings have made it clear that great individual statistics mean something only when they result in wins, and by that rationale, a playoff victory would greatly help Cousins' chance to earn a contract extension this offseason. His three-year, fully guaranteed, $84 million deal runs through the 2020 season. If he can lead the Vikings to their most unanticipated win since the infamous Randy Moss mooning game at Lambeau Field during the 2004 wild-card round -- which happens to be the last time they won a postseason game on the road -- Cousins could solidify his future in Minnesota.
If the Vikings lose in spite of how Cousins plays, ownership could opt to extend him anyway. But if Cousins looks closer to the version of himself that was on display against the Packers two weeks ago (122 yards, one interception, 58.8 rating), the Vikings might decide they've had enough of the Cousins experiment. That could mean the Vikings have to alter what they're planning to do in the draft, by way of trading up to get one of the top quarterbacks and letting Cousins play out the final year of his contract.
No matter what happens, the Vikings are glued to Cousins through at least 2020. Minnesota is responsible for his $29.5 million base salary next season, and his contract carries a no-trade clause. Cutting him would be catastrophic financially, so rule that out. The amount of money the Vikings invested in Cousins will prohibit them from being among the most active teams in free agency, so the UFA quarterback market -- a group that could have Teddy Bridgewater, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady, among others -- is not likely where they’d go to find Cousins’ replacement. But they could look for a veteran on a bargain toward the end of his career (read: Eli Manning). The only option that makes sense from a financial standpoint would be to draft a quarterback to learn under Cousins for a season, but even that will cost the Vikings in precious draft capital.
Mike Zimmer, head coach
The Wilfs are among the strongest believers in what Zimmer has built in Minnesota. His defense has regressed in certain areas, particularly against the pass, but the Vikings ranked No. 1 in opposing yards allowed to winning teams (319 per game) from 2014 to '18 and were 13th in QBR against during that stretch. Zimmer is a master at making adjustments, even against the best competition, and he has been that way throughout his career.
Minnesota exercised its option on Zimmer, 63, during the offseason, which means he's under contract through 2020, but a bad loss in New Orleans could mean the franchise opts to go a different direction at the top. Zimmer's name has been speculated as a possibility for the Dallas Cowboys job, should he and the Vikings part ways, but it might take an ugly loss for that to happen. Zimmer is the third-winningest coach in Vikings history, so the be-careful-what-you-wish-for argument applies. It might be difficult to find someone who has achieved as much consistent success as Zimmer has in his six years.
Kevin Stefanski, offensive coordinator
There's a strong belief within the Vikings organization that Stefanski, 37, will get a shot to be a head coach in 2020. In his first full season as the offensive coordinator, Stefanski has been linked to the Cleveland Browns' coaching search for a second straight year, and he can begin interviewing after this weekend. Plus, Cleveland's might not be the only interest he draws.
The Vikings do not want to lose Stefanski -- not after his efforts to turn around the Vikings' offense and one of the best seasons of Cousins' career and not after he assembled a staff that best plays to the strengths of all its personnel. If Zimmer remains the head coach in Minnesota, Stefanski likely will have his chance to go elsewhere unless ownership wants to transition to an offensive-minded head coach and outbid other teams to keep Stefanski around.
Rick Spielman, general manager
In his eighth season as GM, Spielman, whose contract is synced with Zimmer's through the 2020 season, built one of the best rosters in the NFC and saw a handful of his draft picks make major contributions this season. That list included center Garrett Bradbury, tight end Irv Smith Jr., running back Alexander Mattison and seventh-round wide receiver Bisi Johnson. The offensive line has improved since last season, and the players Spielman kept in Minnesota (Anthony Barr, Kyle Rudolph, Everson Griffen) have allowed the Vikings' core to stay intact.
But Spielman will be forever linked to Cousins, no matter how the QB's career pans out in Minnesota. Quarterback is the position this franchise has not been able to get right for the better part of a decade. If things go poorly for Cousins in New Orleans, two years after Spielman got ownership's blessing to bring him in, the GM might be on the hot seat.