EAGAN, Minn. -- Is it too late for the Minnesota Vikings?
Their postseason chances have faded quickly six weeks into the season after an unexpected 1-4 start for a team that kicked off the year as playoff hopefuls. They lost gut-wrenchingly close games to the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks, each by one point. They are tied for the most one-point losses through any team's first five games in a season in NFL history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The start would lead some to feel the door has shut on Minnesota's chances in 2020 and that the focus should already be gearing toward 2021. Mathematically, however, there's still a window for the Vikings to capitalize on those postseason dreams, and a turnaround could start Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX) against the winless Atlanta Falcons.
Of the 360 teams that have made the playoffs since the NFL went to a 12-team format in 1990, only 2.7% of those teams started off 1-4. With an expanded postseason format this year to include an additional team from the NFC and AFC, Minnesota isn't out of the running yet.
Here's a look at what needs to happen for the Vikings to keep their postseason dreams alive.
How did they get here?
The broadcast crew during Minnesota's bout at Seattle touted the team being "in salary cap hell" as the reason the defense looks the way it does with a group of inexperienced, unknown players taking on new roles. That's only half the story.
The Vikings are feeling the loss of nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out in July, with a run defense that ranks 24th (132.6 yards per game allowed). Defensive end Danielle Hunter hasn't practiced since Aug. 14, and the Vikings have no more clarity on the status of his neck injury, per Mike Zimmer, after he got a second opinion two weeks ago.
Injuries hit the linebacking corps hard and have forced Minnesota to field a different lineup of starting corners in every game. The Vikings are tied for second in allowing the most explosive plays (gains of 30 or more yards) with 10. Minnesota is also minus-5 in turnover differential.
The offense has shown considerable improvement since Week 3 but couldn't come through and close out games against the Titans and Seahawks. The silver lining this team likes to hang its hat on: Two of their losses have come against the undefeated Green Bay Packers and Titans.
What needs to change?
Pass protection is one of the biggest areas that needs to improve.
Minnesota ranks 21st in pass-block win rate. Offensive line play has had a direct correlation on the offense's ability to keep drives alive, like when quarterback Kirk Cousins was pressured on each of his three dropbacks on the Vikings' final drive with a chance to get the team in position to kick a field goal to beat Tennessee. Cousins was also strip-sacked because of porous protection when the Seahawks were scoring 21 points in less than two minutes.
It's possible we start to see things shift on the offensive line. Right guard Dru Samia has a wrist injury and is out for Sunday. Given how poorly he's played and how well rookie Ezra Cleveland is coming along, a switch on the offensive line to aid the Vikings' weakest link -- their guard play -- could help the offense remedy some of its issues in pass protection.
"It's probably just about an opportunity, to be honest with you," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said of Cleveland. "A lot of times guys are out there working and practicing well, and you see them growing as players, and then you never know which given Sunday all of a sudden it's going to be his turn. Whether it's somebody getting nicked up or us giving him the opportunity to go in there and play. I think his time is coming. I think you're going to see him get an opportunity here at some point, and he's really working hard to prepare for that opportunity."
The question then becomes where does Cleveland start? At left guard, where he spent training camp with the second team offense? If so, that would mean Dakota Dozier moves over to right guard.
How can Cousins contribute?
Cousins threw six interceptions in 2019. He has seven through five games. Cousins can certainly improve in ball security, but better play from the offensive line goes hand in hand.
The Vikings' priority on offense centers on closing out games and not relying on their young defense to pull off a victory. They weren't able to do it in Seattle when Zimmer went for the win and running back Alexander Mattison couldn't convert a fourth-and-inches run that would have sealed the game. Cousins couldn't put together a game-winning drive against Tennessee and only has one in his career as a Viking out of 18 opportunities since 2018.
Is the defense improving?
Yes. The cornerbacks held their own for most of the Seattle game aside from a dreadful final drive when Russell Wilson converted twice on fourth down. Wilson may orchestrate the most high-octane attack the Vikings will see this season, but there are plenty of other good QBs in the final 10 games of 2020.
There are coverage lessons the Vikings can take away from where they started the season. Giving teams less single-high looks and more Cover-2 helps mitigate the weaknesses of the cornerbacks, limit the explosive plays and puts more on their safeties to help defend a deep passing game. That's what Minnesota did against the Houston Texans and Seahawks, playing Cover 2 on 24.7% of snaps, which was the fifth- highest rate in that span, as opposed to the 15.3% of snaps in Weeks 1-3.
The Vikings also need to generate more pressure on QBs. Minnesota is averaging 2.2 sacks per game and isn't getting the push it needs from its interior defensive linemen. A good place to spark that turnaround is against a pocket passer like the Falcons' Matt Ryan, who has been sacked 11 times in five games.
The remaining schedule
After Atlanta in Week 6, Minnesota's home slate consists of Detroit, Dallas, Carolina, Jacksonville and Chicago at home. That's a winnable stretch against teams in similar positions to the Vikings with uncertainty at the QB position.
If the Vikings can go into their bye at 2-4, and rattle off five more wins between the remaining home games, break even with their NFC North opponents and potentially steal a game at Tampa Bay or New Orleans, a 7-9 finish and trip to the postseason is within reach.
But getting a victory against Atlanta on Sunday is essentially their last chance to keep their postseason hopes alive before the focus turns to 2021.