Zulgad’s four-and-out: Vikings’ face plenty of questions in what could be chaotic finish

The Minnesota Vikings return from their bye this week very much part of the NFC playoff picture but facing what is shaping up to be a chaotic finish.

Coming off back-to-back losses to Denver and Chicago, the Vikings (6-6) didn’t get any help Sunday as the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams both won to pull even with Minnesota’s record.

The Vikings will face the Raiders on Sunday in Las Vegas, entering the day holding the sixth seed in the conference, winning the head-to-head tiebreaker against the seventh-seeded Packers. The Rams and Seattle Seahawks, also 6-6, are the eighth and ninth seeds, respectively.

One thing is clear: The Vikings don’t have much, if any, room left for missteps in a season that has been filled with them.

Here are some of the key issues the Vikings face with five games left.

Who will start at quarterback?

David Berding/Getty Images
David Berding/Getty Images

Kevin O’Connell acknowledged he would consider his options at quarterback after Josh Dobbs threw four interceptions against the Bears in Week 12, but there has been more than one report in recent days that the Vikings likely will stick with Dobbs.

If that’s the case, you have to wonder how much patience O’Connell will show, if Dobbs gets off to a rough start in Las Vegas. Dobbs has accounted for six turnovers in the past two games (five interceptions, one fumble) and has lost three of six fumbles since he was acquired at the trade deadline from Arizona and took over for the injured Jaren Hall early in Week 9 against Atlanta.

Dobbs’ ability to keep plays alive with his feet is something the Vikings lacked with the injured Kirk Cousins, but if Dobbs continues to have ball security issues, O’Connell will be forced to make a change to either Nick Mullens or Hall.

While it’s on Dobbs to protect the ball, it’s also on O’Connell to put his quarterback in favorable situations and not ask him to do things that he might ask Cousins to do.

What will Justin Jefferson's return mean?

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Justin Jefferson is expected to return Sunday after missing seven games because of a hamstring injury suffered in Week 5 against Kansas City.

While Jefferson might not immediately put up big stats, he should make O’Connell’s life easier as a play-caller because defenses are going to have to pay special attention to him and that should open up favorable situations for wide receivers such as Jordan Addison, K.J. Osborn and Brandon Powell.

Addison had a rough game in the Monday night loss to the Bears — he deflected a pass that led to one of Dobbs’ interceptions — but is among the top rookie wide receivers in yards (686), catchers (54) and touchdowns (seven).

The Vikings held Jefferson out an extra game to get him additional rest during the bye week and to make sure he could return at 100 percent for these last five games.

The preference would be to have Cousins throwing him the ball, but getting a Pro Bowl receiver back on the field is never a bad thing.

Can turnovers be limited or eliminated?

David Berding/Getty Images
David Berding/Getty Images

The primary reason the Vikings are a .500 team is because of their inability to hold onto the ball.

The Vikings had three turnovers in a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, nine in starting the season 0-3 and are currently tied with Cleveland with an NFL-high 24 turnovers. The Vikings’ minus-8 turnover differential also is tied with the Browns near the bottom of the NFL and only two better than Washington’s league-worst differential of minus-10.

The Vikings’ turnover total already is one more than they had in 17 games last season en route to an NFC North title and a 13-4 finish. If there is one thing keeping O’Connell up at night, it’s his team’s butter-finger tendencies.

Clean this up in the final five games and the Vikings are likely to find themselves in the postseason. If this trend continues, it almost certainly will have disastrous results.

Can the Vikings finally beat an AFC team?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings remain in good shape from a playoff standpoint because three of their six losses have come against AFC opponents (Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos). That eases their issues when it comes to tiebreakers.

But the Vikings’ next two games are on the road against AFC foes — Las Vegas (5-7) and Cincinnati (5-6) — and we are to the point of the season where every win and loss matters. The Raiders won their first two games under interim coach Antonio Pierce but have lost their last two and are starting Aidan O’Connell over Jimmy Garoppolo.

The Bengals, who played on Monday night in Jacksonville, are without starting quarterback Joe Burrow (wrist) and have had to turn to former Viking Jake Browning.

This isn’t to say either game will be an easy win for a Vikings team that seems to enjoy making life difficult on itself, but considering the competition the Vikings face for one of the last two playoff berths in the NFC a loss to the Raiders or Bengals can’t be dismissed as no big deal.

The Vikings will play home games against Detroit and Green Bay before ending the regular season at Detroit. The Vikings are three games behind the Lions for the NFC North lead, so there is a chance Detroit will have the division clinched and an opportunity to rest its starters in Week 18.

The Real Forno Show

[lawrence-related id=87254,87242,87245,87236,87229,87227,87225,87216]

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire