Vikings begin stretch of ‘must-win’ games Thursday against Steelers

After the Vikings’ embarrassing 29-27 loss last Sunday to previously winless Detroit, Thursday night’s showdown with Pittsburgh at U.S. Bank Stadium has the makings of a must-win game. Safety Xavier Woods takes that a step further.

“Every game from here on out is a must-win,” Woods said Tuesday. “We have five left, and every one is a must-win to get where we want to go.”

Minnesota is 5-7 and in the No. 9 spot in the NFC playoff race, with seven teams making the postseason. It would be very difficult to climb out of a 5-8 hole and make the playoffs, especially with games remaining against the Los Angeles Rams and at Green Bay.

The Vikings are determined not to let the loss to the Lions (1-10-1) at Ford Field doom their season, and perhaps the only way to overcome that would be a win over the Steelers (6-5-1), who also are fighting for a playoff spot in the AFC. Minnesota receiver Justin Jefferson said it’s not all bad playing on a short week in order to more quickly move on from the Detroit debacle.

“Yeah, it’s time to bring the pain to somebody else,” he said. “Just show our frustration off of the last game, us not getting that win and us not playing as good the first half. Just coming off that, trying to get the win and bouncing back.”

The Vikings trailed the Lions 20-6 at halftime before taking a 27-23 lead with 1:50 left on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Jefferson. But Detroit marched down the field with no timeouts remaining, winning the game when Jared Goff threw an 11-yard TD pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown on the final play.

On that final play, Woods and cornerback Cameron Dantzler were behind Brown when he caught the pass a yard deep in the end zone. Woods didn’t shed a lot of light Tuesday on what happened.

“That’s how we usually align,” he said. “We just didn’t execute. … Of course, the safety is going to be a little deeper. But besides that, we didn’t execute. We were aligned correctly.”

Head coach Mike Zimmer, whose Vikings had beaten Detroit eight straight times before Sunday’s loss, has sought not to dwell on the defeat. He said he watched video of the game on the flight home but “it’s been all Pittsburgh since then.”

“We’ve got to get focused quickly on this game,” Zimmer said. “Short week. A lot of preparation on a short week. Extra film study. More mental than it is physical this week.”

The Vikings’ seven losses this season have been by a combined total of 28 points. The latest defeat was the toughest of them all, but Zimmer insisted his team’s morale hasn’t slipped.

“I don’t see any difference in their attitude or the way they go about meetings or practice and things like that,” he said.

The Vikings on Thursday will try to beat their first AFC North foe of the season and avoid finishing 0-4 against the division. They’ve already lost to Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore.

This will be the Steelers’ first game in Minnesota since beating the Vikings 18-3 at the Metrodome on Dec. 18, 2005. They were scheduled for a return to trip to the Metrodome in 2013 before that game was moved to London.

In the previous game in Minnesota, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger was a second-year quarterback who six weeks later led the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL. Now he’s in his 18th, and likely last, NFL season.

On defense, the Steelers feature linebacker T.J. Watt, who leads the NFL with 16 sacks. Cousins will be paying close attention to him.

“I think there has to be an awareness of where he is. You have to give a player like that who has been productive respect and understand where he’s at,” Cousins said.

Cousins was sacked three times against the Lions, which tied a season high. Like other Minnesota players, he has been trying to put that game behind him as quickly as possible.

“We’ve got a great challenge on Thursday night, and we have to be resilient,” he said. “We have to choose to be tough and find a way to get it done.”

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