MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have spent the entire season on the edge, with all but one game decided by one score. The NFC wild-card race that was recently so inviting will require extra work to re-enter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are on the outside of the playoff picture in the AFC, too, similarly facing a difficult schedule down the stretch. Their outlook is a bit brighter, though, thanks to their 20-19 win over rival Baltimore on Sunday.
As random and unpredictable as NFL results can be, the Steelers appear to have cracked the code on these close games that the Vikings are still scrambling to solve.
“Obviously we'd love to have a blowout game and not have to worry about it, but I definitely think you can learn something from the game last week,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Character can be built, heart can be built, from those games.”
The Steelers are 6-1-1 in decisions by eight points or less. The Vikings are 4-7 in those games. They'll play in Minnesota on Thursday night, with the full expectation of another down-to-the-wire affair.
“I don’t worry about them. I worry about us. I know that we grow from those experiences and grow in the right ways: belief in themselves, each other,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “But you’re just faced with different challenges each and every week. What transpired last week in a positive way might not necessarily manifest itself in the next stadium in that way.”
The end was cruel again to the Vikings on Sunday in Detroit, when the previously winless Lions beat them 29-27 with a last-play touchdown pass to cap a 75-yard drive that began with 1:50 left and with no timeouts.
“I carry losses with me,” 10th-year Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "I know you’re supposed to have a 24-hour rule, but if you don’t take things personally in this league, you’re not going to be here very long.”
The security of head coach Mike Zimmer is probably being threatened by all these last-minute falters. In his eighth season with Minnesota, the 65-year-old Zimmer has seen his team lose seven times by a combined margin of 28 points.
“Coach Zimmer is tough-minded. He’s resilient. He’s been through a lot in his life. He’s been through a lot in his football career. That’s a guy that you’re not going to knock down easily, and you can’t count him out. I think we feed off that, and it makes us a resilient group,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Every time you lose, it hurts. It really hurts. It hurts him, too. But as the leader, he knows he’s got to get back up on the horse each day and keep fighting.”
IN THE STANDINGS
The Steelers (6-5-1) are in eighth place in the AFC, but all three teams — the Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati and Buffalo — currently holding wild-card spots are only a hair ahead of them at 7-5.
The Vikings (5-7) are in ninth place in the NFC, one game behind Washington and San Francisco and a half-game behind Philadelphia.
T.J. FOR MVP
Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt has already equaled James Harrison’s team record for sacks in a season, having pushed his total to 16 with a 3 1/2-sack performance last week against Baltimore. Watt is on pace to break the NFL single-season record (22 1/2) set by Hall of Famer Michael Strahan with the New York Giants in 2001.
Some of Watt’s teammates have been stumping for Watt to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award. That's not enough for Roethlisberger.
“He should absolutely get MVP votes as well, because that’s what kind of a player he is,” Roethlisberger said.
Strahan did not appear on a single MVP ballot in 2001, when the Giants finished 7-9.
MOVING ON UP
Justin Jefferson is second in the NFL with 1,209 receiving yards, on pace for another collection of records in his second year in the league. The Vikings have so far been squandering another stellar overall performance by their star wide receiver.
“It’s time to go bring the pain to somebody else, just show our frustration off of last game,” Jefferson said.
LOAD BEARING, LOAD SHARING
Pittsburgh rookie running back Najee Harris already has 274 touches through 12 games. While Harris has stressed he wants the ball in his hands as many times as it takes to win, the team has been searching for ways to ease his burden.
A glimmer of help arrived last week when Benny Snell ran twice for 13 yards on the go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.
“We wanted to keep him fresh, and so we needed to supplement him, and we did. He got good assistance from Benny. We’re appreciative of those efforts,” Tomlin said.
Harris has 779 rushing yards, on pace to break the franchise rookie record set by Hall of Famer Franco Harris with 1,055 yards in 1972 in three fewer games. Snell, Kalen Ballage and Anthony McFarland Jr. have just 95 rushing yards combined.
The Vikings are without standout defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, but they'll get back linebackers Eric Kendricks (biceps) and Anthony Barr (hamstring/knee) and cornerback Patrick Peterson (COVID-19) against Pittsburgh after all three of them missed the game in Detroit.
“It’s tough to have all 11 from start to finish, but to have the majority of your guys at this point and to be in the position we’re in to continue in the playoff push is a blessing,” safety Xavier Woods said.
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