EAGAN, Minn. -- The 1-5 Minnesota Vikings are about to discover how far they are from being contenders and just how long a turnaround might take.
"We'll find out pretty quick with our remaining games in the division," general manager Rick Spielman said.
The Vikings' next three games are against division opponents -- at the Green Bay Packers (1 ET Sunday, FOX), at home against the Detroit Lions and at the Chicago Bears -- and will determine the course they take beyond this season. If this losing trajectory continues, Minnesota's remaining stretch has to be about player development and building for the future.
What happens at Lambeau Field on Sunday could push the Vikings into becoming sellers ahead of Tuesday's trade deadline or encourage them to hang on to their veterans and make one final push toward turning the season around.
Minnesota faced Green Bay (5-1) in Week 1, and since then the two teams have gone in opposite directions. The Vikings have less of a pass rush than they did in the opener after trading Yannick Ngakoue and are missing three of their top four cornerbacks. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense hasn't missed a beat despite the lack of receiver depth and not having running back Aaron Jones for two games, boasting the sixth-highest scoring offense in the league (32.8 points per game).
The Vikings have not started 0-4 against NFC North opponents since coach Mike Zimmer's first season in 2014. Detroit appears to be improving. Chicago is second in the division race behind Green Bay and always gives the Vikings fits at Soldier Field.
Coming out of their bye, the Vikings hope their problems have been corrected and won't cause them turmoil in this critical division stretch. Kirk Cousins' league-worst 10 interceptions are a glaring problem, though he's repeatedly received votes of confidence from Spielman, his coaches and teammates.
"You always go -- can the player play himself out of it?" ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "We've seen it this year. [Eagles QB] Carson Wentz was terrible the first three weeks and he's played himself out of it. Can the player play himself out of it, so to speak, is something that I'm sure they're hanging on to."
Among the Vikings’ biggest takeaways from the first half was that they are no longer able to play the brand of football they did last season. Cousins’ cookie-cutter offensive efficiency from a year ago when he finished as a top-10 quarterback in spite of lower passing volume will not cut it with a defense that hasn’t been able to bail out the offense when needed.
Minnesota was plus-11 in turnover differential last year, the fifth-best mark in the NFL, and Cousins only threw six interceptions the whole season. Cousins talked this week about limiting interceptions by being "maybe less aggressive, less trying to make the big play." But with the current state of their defense, for the Vikings to stay in games they need to stay aggressive while limiting mistakes.
"Well, we can't turn the ball over," Zimmer said. "We're minus-7, I believe, in turnovers, so we've got to possess the ball. That's the only way we can win football games here, by possessing the ball. We can't turn the ball over. We've got to be smart with the football. We've got to protect it, whether it's in the pocket or the running back or wide receivers, we just can't turn the ball over. We don't have enough firepower to overcome that right now."
The Vikings went into 2020 bullish on the belief that their offensive continuity could make up for their lack of strength on defense. That philosophy has not panned out. Yet now, more than ever, they're going to have to lean heavily on that attitude that the turnaround in the second half starts on offense.
It could be what saves or dismantles the season even further and forces the Vikings into thinking about the moves they can make in the short term and down the line to build a team that is able to remain competitive in the division.
"Regardless of what else is going on around you, you really want to be that way as an offense, no matter what. Even if you have the greatest defense in the history of the league, you still want to take that approach on offense," Cousins said. "I've always learned that the best way for me to play and the best way for our offense to succeed is just to focus on us and how to best do our job and control what you can control and not spend energy or time thinking about much else."