MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have had one of those nail-biter seasons, and there's not much left to chew on with their chance of making the playoffs now in low-percentage territory.
The math problem won't be any easier to solve without Adam Thielen.
The venerable wide receiver was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday, so the only way he could return from his sprained ankle this season would be with the Vikings playing deep into January.
“Adam’s such a great player. He’s been so productive. He’s a great leader on our team, so it’s tough to not have him,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “But it does give a great opportunity to some of our younger receivers, and we’ll have to bring them along quickly.”
The Vikings (7-8) play at Green Bay (12-3) on Sunday night, where the NFC North champion Packers will be playing to stay on track for the No. 1 seed and first-round bye that comes with it. Thielen, who leads the Vikings with 10 touchdowns this season, hurt his left ankle on the opening drive at Detroit on Dec. 5.
He missed the next two games, returning to the lineup last week against the Los Angeles Rams only to aggravate the injury twice. He barely played in the second half. The 31-year-old Thielen must sit out a minimum of three games, meaning the Vikings would have to make the playoffs and win a first-round matchup for him to even be eligible to return.
Cousins has a 120.3 passer rating and 71.3% completion rate when targeting Thielen with the ball this year. Thielen has 34 games of 75-plus receiving yards; seven have come against the Packers.
“The ball always seems to find him in the end zone. We’re going to miss that in the red zone,” said running back Dalvin Cook, who has returned from the COVID-19 reserve list after sitting out against the Rams.
Cook was able to take advantage of the NFL's new shortened isolation rule, forcing asymptomatic players to sit out only five days, half of the previous requirement. Cook is unvaccinated and declined to discuss that subject when asked on Wednesday before practice.
Backup defensive end Patrick Jones went on COVID-19 reserve on Wednesday, the day after right guard Oli Udoh was placed on the list. Coach Mike Zimmer said Udoh was trending toward a quick return, indicating he's been asymptomatic. Co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, who missed the Rams game, was also feeling better, according to Zimmer, and expected back with the team on Thursday. Backup quarterback Sean Mannion remained on COVID-19 reserve, leading the Vikings to sign quarterback Kyle Sloter to the active roster.
“That’s what you have to do in this league, be ready to adapt and step up, especially in the age of COVID,” Cousins said.
The Vikings are in eighth place in the NFC, one game behind San Francisco and Philadelphia. The 49ers and Eagles currently hold the final two wild-card spots and would eliminate Minnesota on Sunday if they both win and the Vikings lose to the Packers.
Atlanta and New Orleans are tied with the Vikings, creating all kinds of complicated multi-team tiebreakers that may or not benefit them depending on which teams are in the mix. Most analytics have pegged their chance of making the playoffs at less than 20%.
“We have to win the rest of these games. No matter how we win it, no matter how we do it, we have to go win,” Cook said.
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