LAS VEGAS (AP) — The paths Minnesota and Las Vegas took to get to this point in the NFL season have not been an easy one.
Both teams have had upheaval — backup quarterbacks now starting for each club, a coaching change for the Raiders — and this game will be quite telling where their seasons go from here.
More is on the line for the Vikings because at 6-6 they have a more realistic chance at a playoff spot given how the NFC standings line up.
Like the Raiders, they come off two losses and a bye, and the Vikings' timing for the stretch run is especially fortuitous given wide receiver Justin Jefferson returns after missing the past seven games because of a hamstring injury.
But instead of catching passes from Kirk Cousins — out since tearing an Achilles tendon on Oct. 29 — Joshua Dobbs will be behind center. Coach Kevin O'Connell decided to stick with Dobbs, who threw four interceptions Nov. 27 against Chicago. Three of those passes were deflected, however, and Dobbs did win his first two starts before losing the next two by a combined three points.
Dobbs called the week off a chance to recharge for the last stretch.
"It was good to go back over my tape from my first four weeks here and the rest of the tape from the beginning of the season, see areas I’ve done well at, seeing how I can improve and, ultimately, see how I can go out and give us the best chance to win on Sunday.”
The Raiders had their postseason hopes take a major hit with losses to Miami and Kansas City before the break, dropping Las Vegas' record to 5-7.
History, however, could be on the Raiders' side. They were 6-7 two years ago under an interim coach before winning their final four games to make the playoffs.
“I feel like we’re leaving plays on the field,” Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce said. “We do have plays open. We’ve got guys running down the field and we’ve got some lanes to hit in the running game and defensively we’ve got some opportunities to get the quarterback on the ground or to make a play on the ball or in the special teams to take one to the house. Well, you’ve got to do it. We’ve got to stop talking about it.”
MOVING ON UP
The Vikings ought to get a big boost from the return of Jefferson. They managed to win their first five games without him, but Dobbs could sure use his presence down the field. The 2022 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year often prompts opponents to play shell coverage with two high safeties, the type of alignment that can make it easier for Dobbs to use one of his best skills by taking off and running when he doesn’t find an open man.
“Every defense is in a conflict with J.J. out on the field and having the people that we have. We’re just looking to try to attack that and do our thing,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “Listen, they’re going to try to double him, but he’s still going to win. He’s going to get his ops, and he’s going to go off. It’s going to be fun to watch him, and it’s a blast to have him back out in the huddle.”
Jefferson said he felt a sense of “helplessness” having to watch the Vikings from the sideline. He nearly returned the previous game, but all parties involved decided using the extra week of the bye was a better option.
“That was the main focus in getting back on that field, having that same explosion, having that same power, having that same speed as I did before then,” Jefferson said. “You’ve got to trust that my hamstring is back to where it was before, or even stronger.”
The Raiders have had high hopes for tight end Michael Mayer since trading up to take him high in the second round of this year's draft.
He had a rough start when defensive end Maxx Crosby took Mayer to school on the first day of training camp. Mayer, though, is beginning to show why the Raiders believed in him initially with nine catches in his past three games for 92 yards. Not mind-blowing numbers, but he had 13 receptions for 159 yards over his first nine games.
“Here’s a guy that, let’s be honest, in training camp got baptized," Pierce said. "He got embarrassed, humble pie, but now he’s dishing it out now too himself. You can see big Mike walking around with a shoulder shrug, got a little swag to him. It’s good to see man, especially rookies who late in the season hit that rookie wall, he’s doing opposite.”
According to Sportradar, the Vikings' average allowance of 17.8 points per game from Week 4-13 was fourth best in the NFL. They’ve given up only 12 touchdowns in their past nine games.
The success has naturally elevated the candidacy of defensive coordinator Brian Flores for potential head coaching positions next season, a job he had for Miami from 2019-21.
“All the other stuff, I ask them to block it out, and I’m blocking it out myself,” Flores said. “You’ve got to lead by example. I’m certainly going to do that.”
AP Pro Football Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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