The Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers entered this season with high expectations after making the playoffs last year, but both teams find themselves winless after two weeks.
Since 1990, only four of a possible 158 teams (2.5%) have made the postseason after an 0-3 start, so both the Chargers and Vikings will treat Sunday’s matchup on FOX as a virtual must-win at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Los Angeles fell to 0-2 on Sunday with a heartbreaking 27-24 loss to the Tennessee Titans in overtime after tying the game on the last play of regulation. Including a 36-34 loss to the Miami Dolphins in NFL Week 1, the Chargers have played an NFL-high 10 games decided by three points or fewer since the start of last season.
The Vikings have also lost a pair of one-score games to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles, but – despite a rocky start – are still considered favorites to win the NFC North by our NFL prediction model.
Most sportsbooks’ point spreads list Minnesota around a one-point favorite over Los Angeles, and our predictive model sees the Vikings as the best bets with a 62.8% win probability on Sunday. A score of 69 by SmartRatings makes this one of the most exciting matchups of the week.
Minnesota’s prolific passing attack can seemingly make any matchup exciting, and Kirk Cousins is tied for the NFL lead with Jordan Love of the Green Bay Packers with six touchdown passes. His 708 passing yards trail only Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa’s 715.
Just like Tagovailoa reaps the benefits of throwing to Tyreek Hill, Cousins’ impressive passing numbers are a nod to the brilliance of Justin Jefferson, who has established himself as one of the best receivers in the league.
Despite a top-tier passing attack, the Vikings find themselves 18th in the NFL in scoring at 22.5 points per game, thanks in large part to a bad case of the turnover bug and a dreadful rushing game.
The Vikings have fumbled six times this season – tied for the NFL high – and their opponents have recovered all six. No other NFL team has lost at least six fumbles in the first two games of the season since the 2003 St. Louis Rams.
While Minnesota’s fumble troubles can partially be attributed to bad luck, the team has already taken steps to help fix its anemic rushing attack.
MIN: Spark the Running Game
Minnesota is averaging a league-worst 34.5 rushing yards per game and is the only team without a run of at least 10 yards this season.
Alexander Mattison inherited the starting running back role after the offseason departure of Dalvin Cook, but he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry despite facing a stacked box on 34.5% of his carries – third lowest among running backs with at least 10 carries.
As a result of Mattison’s struggles, the Vikings acquired Cam Akers from the Los Angeles Rams on Wednesday. Akers is averaging 0.273 missed or broken tackles per touch, which is third among running backs with at least 20 touches. Mattison leaves defenders in the dust at less than a third of that rate at 0.080.
The problems with Minnesota’s rushing attack, however, extend beyond the ball carriers.
Vikings rushers are getting some of the worst run blocking in the NFL and are gaining an average of 1.0 yards before contact – tied for the second-worst mark in the league.
The combination of bad blocking and subpar running has left the Vikings with just a 32.0% success rate on rushing plays.
While Cousins and Jefferson will likely continue to put up huge numbers through the air, the Vikings will hope to achieve some semblance of offensive balance against the Los Angeles defense.
LAC: Herbert Makes the Difference
The Los Angeles offense has been largely productive so far this season, ranking in the top five of the league in total offense at 387.5 yards per game. The underdog Chargers are also one of five teams that have yet to commit a turnover this year.
Even more encouraging for LA fans has been the balance displayed by the offense. In their season-opening loss to the Dolphins, the Chargers were able to move the ball at will on the ground and piled up 233 rushing yards.
Last weekend, star running back Austin Ekeler sat out with an ankle injury, and the game plan shifted more toward Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and the rest of their wide receivers. Ekeler has been held out of practice and remains questionable on the injury report this week, potentially leaving the bulk of the rushing to Joshua Kelley.
If Ekeler misses a second consecutive game, Herbert may once again be called upon to air it out, but he will have to do it against a Vikings defense that has held opponents to a 31.5% success rate on passing plays.
One pivot point could be how Herbert and the Chargers hold up against the blitz. Minnesota has blitzed on an NFL-high 78.1% of designed pass plays, and that number jumps to an astonishing 96.4% on first down, meaning Herbert could face the heat early and often.
Herbert is completing 83.3% of his passes against the blitz this year but is averaging just 5.08 air yards per attempt. He has been able to identify when the defense is bringing pressure and quickly find an outlet with an above-average 2.33 seconds release time against the blitz.
When those rushers win their matchups, however, Herbert has struggled under pressure. He has a 38.6% expected completion percentage while under pressure. That’s the second-worst mark among quarterbacks with at least 10 pressured throws, ahead of only Joe Burrow (36.7%) of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter leads the NFL with 10 pressures and will have Herbert in his crosshairs.
Odds-makers are expecting a high-scoring affair, as sportsbooks have assigned this game the highest consensus point total of the week at around 54. But our projection model has the underside of the over/under at around 52 (28-24).
Cousins, Jefferson and the Minnesota passing game find a way to be productive almost every week, so the responsibility to keep up will likely fall to Herbert as both teams try to avoid a foreboding 0-3 start.
Check out the rest of our NFL picks, along with every team’s chances at making the playoffs in our season predictions. We also have weekly fantasy projections and rankings and use our sit/start comparison tool to help you with lineup decisions. And don’t forget to follow us on X and Instagram.