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State of the Franchise: Playoffs or bust for Kirk Cousins, Vikings

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Vikings organization, Vikings fans around the world, and those who recognize that Marshall Eriksen was low-key the best character on "How I Met Your Mother" (lawyered):

The Vikings were responsible for one of the most indelible moments of the 2017 playoffs: Stefon Diggs' "Minnesota Miracle" catch. So while they lost in the NFC Championship Game (missing an opportunity to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium), they rolled into last season with a lot of momentum. They'd acquired a franchise quarterback for the first time in what seemed like forever. Their defense was great. They had these two amazing receivers. There was no way the Vikings could lose.

And then they lost. Minnesota finished 8-7-1 and failed to reach the playoffs. There is no other way to spin this. But it's time to look to the future.

How the Vikings got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:

The highs:

-- Signing Kirk Cousins. Minnesota went all in on the chase for the ex-Washington QB, appearing to solve a problem that had long loomed over the franchise.

-- Beating the 49ers to open the season 1-0. It really looked like things were going to get rolling!

-- Diggs and Adam Thielen tearing up the NFL for the first half of the season. Thielen topped 100 yards in each of his first eight games, the most games of 100-plus yards in the first eight weeks of a season in NFL history, while Diggs chipped in a not-too-shabby 713 yards and five touchdowns through Week 9.

The lows:

-- Going winless in the three games following the 1-0 start. The Vikings tied with the Packers in Week 2, dropped a stunner to the Bills in Week 3 and lost a shootout to the Rams in Week 4, and before you knew it, they were 1-2-1.

-- Firing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in December. DeFilippo entered the scene as a hot name coming off his stint as QB coach for the Super Bowl-winning Eagles, but by Week 14, Minnesota was floundering on offense, ranking 17th overall, 20th in scoring, eighth in passing and 30th in rushing. Meanwhile, coach Mike Zimmer was openly grousing about his team's run game. With the Vikings also struggling to make good on the potential they'd shown coming into the season, Minnesota said goodbye to DeFilippo.

-- Losing to the Bears in a win-and-in situation. Chicago had almost nothing to play for in this Week 17 matchup, having clinched the NFC North already. Minnesota had everything to play for. The Bears won by two scores.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Mike Zimmer. The dean of the NFC North coaches, Zimmer has gone 47-32-1 during his five seasons in Minnesota, making two playoff appearances. His contract runs through 2020, and while I wouldn't want to suggest he's on the hot seat, it feels like it's getting warmer. The decision to dump DeFilippo in December -- and then to bring Gary Kubiak aboard as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor in the offseason -- made the urgency of the situation clear.

I love Zimmer, but I'm not sure that was the best move. With the NFL evolving, it was smart to bring in one of the bright, young coaching prospects last offseason, especially one coming off a Super Bowl win with the Eagles. For the Vikings' sake, I hope Kubiak -- who, like Zimmer, has been coaching in the NFL since the mid-1990s -- is able to correct the issues that dogged Minnesota in 2018. Zimmer should do what he feels is right, and I'm not aware of what was going on behind closed doors. But I've seen enough buddy-cop movies to know that the rookie and hardened veteran need to find a way to work it out. You don't fire the rookie and bring back one of your old pals from your days at the academy.

Quarterback: Kirk Cousins. Cousins' three-year, $84 million deal was the first fully guaranteed multi-year contract given to an NFL quarterback. And I guarantee you there are people who are upset at Cousins because Minnesota didn't make the playoffs last year. But they shouldn't be. He threw for a career-high 30 touchdowns, with 4,298 passing yards (the second-best mark of his career) and a passer rating of 99.7 (his third-best), while throwing just 10 interceptions, tied for 20th in the NFL last season. So we shouldn't put all the blame on the seven-year veteran. After all, he was great in Minnesota's loss to the Rams on a short week in Los Angeles, throwing for 422 yards and three TDs. And he completed more than 80% of his passes in a win over the Eagles in Week 5. It didn't help that a hamstring injury limited running back Dalvin Cook in the first half of the season (more on him below). In short, Cousins was pretty good last year.

Projected 2019 MVP, Non-Cousins Division: Danielle Hunter, defensive end. One of those can't-miss prospects by virtue of his size (6-foot-5, 252 pounds), Hunter signed a five-year extension last June, then finally broke out in a big way in Year 4 of his NFL career. It's like the way you watched Drew McIntyre down in NXT when he finally became a superstar. Whoops, I lost some of you. But Hunter, right? He had 14.5 sacks last season, which was the fourth-highest total in the league. He basically ruined Lions QB Matthew Stafford in Week 9, collecting 3.5 sacks and four total quarterback hits. The Vikings need that kind of effort from Hunter again.

Projected 2019 breakout star: Anthony Harris, safety. He sort of broke out last year when he stepped in for Andrew Sendejo. Starting more than three games for the first time in his career, the former undrafted free agent led the team with three interceptions and was one of Pro Football Focus's highest-graded safeties. And now Sendejo is in Philly, while Harris is in a contract year. He certainly made an impression on me when he picked off Mitch Trubisky twice in the Vikings' Week 11 matchup with the Bears.

We are also rooting for: Chad Beebe, receiver. A lot of us olds will remember his dad as the dude who stripped the ball from Leon Lett in the Cowboys' blowout win over Beebe's Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. I know many of you reading this weren't even alive for that game, but go check it out on YouTube or something. Chad Beebe was an undrafted free-agent last year, and he could be in the mix for a WR3 role this season.

A new face to know: Alexander Mattison, running back. The Vikings already have a quality running back in Cook, but don't sleep on Mattison. The Vikings really like the third-round pick for his size and his ability to catch the football. And Cook, who has played in just 15 games in his two NFL seasons while notching as many games with less than 80 scrimmage yards as he has games with 100-plus scrimmage yards (six), needs to show that he can do it consistently.

The 2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. Hey, man, you can't pay a quarterback as much as Cousins is being paid and not be expected to at least field a good team. I mean, spending premium dollars on a QB and not expecting to contend would be like purchasing an expensive TV and then keeping it in your bathroom. Actually, that's kind of a cool idea; OK, so it's more like putting an awesome TV in your living room but having no furniture. Although that might be an excellent way to ensure your family doesn't spend too much time watching TV. Fine; having a high-end quarterback and not winning is like having a high-end quarterback and not winning.

Will the Vikings be able to ...

Run the ball? As mentioned above, Minnesota's difficulties on the ground seemed to play into DeFilippo's firing. While the Vikings didn't score more than 24 points in the final six games of DeFilippo's tenure, their inability to run the football was more disturbing. Through Week 14 (DeFilippo's last on the job), Minnesota recorded 274 rushing attempts, 31st in the NFL. In Week 15, with Kevin Stefanski having been elevated to play-caller in DeFilippo's place, Cook had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season (and his first since Week 1 of 2017), going for 136 rushing yards (with a 27-yard catch) against the Dolphins. Before you make your jokes, I'll say that yes, it still counts, even though it was against Miami's 31st-ranked run defense.

The Vikings have high expectations for Cook, who has shown flashes but has also been hampered by injuries, including a torn ACL as a rookie, since being drafted in Round 2 in 2017. Let's also remember that Kubiak has consistently produced 1,000-yard runners -- Kubiak has coached a 1,000-yard rusher in 15 of his 22 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator. If Cook can't get it done, Mattison is going to get his chance. The key for the Vikings this season will be to rely on play-action passing. That should help Cousins and help the offense.

Improve on the offensive line? Oh man, I remember going into the 2018 NFL Draft and talking with my pals who are Vikings fans about just drafting offensive linemen. And then Minnesota let Will Hernandez fall into the second round to the Giants while choosing to draft cornerback Mike Hughes 30th overall. Hughes is fine, but that position was not an immediate area of need. Bringing in Josh Kline as a free agent and drafting center Garrett Bradbury 18th overall this offseason should help up front. Those are the kinds of moves you need to make to win.

Kick the ball? Vikings fans, as a Bears fan, I feel you on the kicking issues. Dan Bailey, who came in after Daniel Carlson's flameout, has been re-signed, but I can understand that it's giving you an uneasy feeling. It's like when you see your toddler walking into the room holding a bowl full of cereal and milk. You don't want to yell or say anything to get that kid off course. But you know, deep down, the contents of that bowl are going to end up on the floor. Again, I feel you.

Three key dates:

-- Week 2 at the Packers. This was an exciting game last year, but it ended in a tie. Both of these teams are desperate to get to the Super Bowl. Even though they are on the road, this seems like a bigger game for the Vikings than the Packers.

-- Week 4 at the Bears. The Bears swept the Vikings last year. The wheels could start to come off here if Minnesota doesn't get a win in one of these two road games. And to be honest, they will probably mail it in against the Raiders in Week 3 at home and lose that one.

-- Week 17 vs. the Bears. What, is this the same schedule as last year?

One storyline people are overlooking: Fantasy dorks shouldn't expect Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to continue to put up numbers. We've already mentioned the desire to run the ball. I want you to understand something. Diggs and Thielen are great players, but I'm worried about their lower levels of usage under the new regime on offense. In the three games for which Stefanski was in charge last season, Diggs recorded 23 targets and 14 receptions for 106 yards and three touchdowns, while Thielen posted 12 targets and 10 receptions for 137 yards and no touchdowns. In fact, Thielen had two touchdowns after Week 9 and topped 100 receiving yards once. I'm just giving you a warning and providing the information. Don't get mad at me.

One storyline people are overthinking: Kirk Cousins isn't clutch. This has become a big one for the Cousins detractors. It's true that he was dreadful in Minnesota's two losses to the Bears, combining in those games for a 3:2 TD-to-INT ratio, a passer rating of 77.7 and a completion rate of 63.3%, while logging a per-game yardage figure of 197. Eddie Jackson's pick-six might seem like the perfect summation of Cousins' performance -- but let's take a closer look at that play:

I don't know what everybody is complaining about. That's just a great play by Jackson. Seriously. Hold on, I'm going to watch it again. Yep, it's amazing. But even if you're going to fault Cousins for that play, he was pretty clutch against the Packers in Week 2. That toss to Thielen to tie the game with 31 seconds left was a dot. He was great against the Rams; it wasn't his fault the defense couldn't at least provide a minor speed bump for L.A. So you can stop it.

If the Vikings can get that running game going and use play-action effectively, Cousins could end up performing even better this season. I'm not talking about him as a game-manager or thinking about any of those other passive-aggressive labels they put on quarterbacks. Cousins is kind of a dark-horse MVP if things go right for the Vikings this year.

One more thing: "Little Minnesota" is one of my favorite episodes of "How I Met Your Mother," for sure. Although, to nitpick, even though the game was played in 1999, it was the 1998 NFC Championship Game that causes everybody to shout "damn" when they reference it. It's not fair, but I blame the bartender (played by Tug Coker). I'm kidding.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Vikings MUST ...

-- Get back to the playoffs. Coming a close second is not going to cut it. Not with a quarterback commanding such a huge salary and an old-school coach in place while other contenders focus on evolving their approach.

In closing

It's tough to spend all of that money on a quarterback and not make the playoffs. Like paying to upgrade to first class, only to find out that they gave away your seats and now you're going to have to fly home on Spirit Airlines. But I wouldn't fret too much, Vikings fans. Your roster is still talented and loaded for a playoff run.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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