Rocco Baldelli’s cap adds fuel to Twins-Saints affiliation reports

A few weeks ago, our La Velle E. Neal III reported that the Twins and Saints were working on a deal to have St. Paul replace Rochester (N.Y.) as the organization’s Triple-A affiliate — a fairly seismic shakeup for the two biggest baseball entities in the Twin Cities.

While a lot of questions remain — including how to finance the up to $20 million required to become an affiliate and exactly what becoming an affiliated team would mean for the Saints’ brand — we seem to be inching closer to a final decision.

Baseball America, which has been ahead on the reporting on the massive nationwide overhaul of the minor league affiliate system, reported recently that a full list of 120 affiliates for the 30 MLB clubs could be announced this week.

But in between La Velle’s report a few weeks ago and the official announcement sometime in the near future, the Twins-Saints story was advanced in a different way — via a hat tip, literally and figuratively, from Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.

In a video message posted on Twitter on Saturday, Baldelli thanked Twins fans for their support, told them how much the Twins miss them and reminded them that because of Covid-19 the organization had to cancel TwinsFest and the Winter Caravan this season.

The text of the 88 second video was nice. The subtext was far more interesting.

In the video, Baldelli is wearing a vintage St. Paul Saints cap. If that was some sort of mistake, I’m sure Baldelli wouldn’t have tweeted it out — nor would the Twins’ official Twitter account have retweeted it just minutes after he sent it.

So we are left with the possibility that it’s just a massive coincidence and Rocco just likes vintage caps … or that the Twins-Saints affiliation is close enough to being a done deal that Baldelli is already wearing the merchandise of the new Class AAA team.

“I’m really excited to see what the Twins have in store and are coming up with right now,” Baldelli says in the video.

As Wolves search for a star, there are many paths — but no sure thing

The Timberwolves just spent eight months doing practically nothing interesting, followed by an intense week where they added a great deal to their roster via the draft, free agency and trades — all of which will lead to training camp starting in a week and a season starting in less than a month.

So naturally, I’d like to talk about … their quest to add a third All-Star to a roster featuring Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, an endeavor that might not ever bear fruit and which could take, at minimum, at least another year.

Sure, I’m interested to see how all the current parts fit together, including the return of Ricky Rubio. But long-term, I’m more intrigued by President Gersson Rosas and his staff’s pursuit of the highest-level talent. Because that is the only thing that ultimately will mold the Wolves into anything other than a fringe playoff team.

As such, here is a primer for the paths the Wolves can take to unlock another transcendent player in the relative near-term, in order of easiest to most difficult.

1 Top overall pick Anthony Edwards becomes that guy and does it quickly. History tells us that the No. 1 overall pick has a good chance to become a franchise player. A total of 18 former No. 1 overall picks are in the Hall of Fame.

More recently, the drafts from 2003 (LeBron James) through 2016 (Ben Simmons) have yielded 10 out of 14 players who made either at least one All-Star or all-NBA team.

As the Wolves’ luck would have it, they acquired two of the four who didn’t (Anthony Bennett in 2013 and Andrew Wiggins in 2014) in the Kevin Love trade. But they drafted Towns No. 1 overall in 2015, and he has delivered two All-Star appearances, one all-NBA nod and the right to be considered a franchise cornerstone.

The dilemma with Edwards is that he’s only 19 and doesn’t match up with the KAT and D-Lo timeline so often referenced by Rosas. The Wolves don’t just need another All-Star caliber player. They need one by the 2021-22 season in order to keep those other two players happy and interested.

Will we really learn what we need to learn about Edwards’ future outlook during a hurried 72-game season in a pandemic? Maybe. But if not, another option could be in play.

2 The Wolves gather up their best assets and make a run at a franchise-altering trade for a star next offseason. Next summer will be interesting. Some of it will depend on what happens this season, but some of it requires only a look at contracts to see what could happen.

Namely: Rubio’s feel-good return could become a dilemma for Rosas as it turns into a juicy $17 million expiring contract before the 2021-22 season. Combine that with, say, Malik Beasley’s $15 million or a couple smaller contracts, and you have enough – plus draft picks and/or young players – to match both salaries and assets in the pursuit of another mid-20s star.

Just who would be available – and whether the Wolves get traction with their current lineup and don’t want to change the core — is again likely dependent on what happens this season. But if you’re a Wolves fan you are watching to see if Phoenix (Devin Booker) or Philadelphia (Ben Simmons) does a major faceplant this season.

If one of those players was available and Rubio was a logical trade chip, it would set up the possibility of him being traded away for a second time.

3 The Wolves, by some combination of luck and development, find a player on their roster other than Edwards who elevates and becomes a star. Beasley seems like the most likely candidate after thriving in a small sample after last February’s trade (20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 42.6% on three-pointers in 14 games). He turns 24 on Thanksgiving and, with a larger role, could develop into a bona fide All-Star thread as a third option.

That said, Beasley has already been in the league five seasons. If he had star potential, he likely would have shown it already in Denver. It’s more likely he’s a solid starter on a good team. And the Wolves might really need more like a No. 1 or No. 2 option instead of a No. 3-level star to add to their mix.

Other options theoretically include Jarrett Culver (still only 21), who is coming off of a rookie season that would be described, if you were giving it a compliment, as uneven. The Wolves other 2020 first-round picks Leandro Bolmaro (No. 23) and Jaden McDaniels (No. 28) could be home runs, but we probably won’t know that for at least a couple years.

Then there’s always someone way out of left field – like, say, undrafted guard Jordan McLaughlin, currently a free agent, who was the subject of an amazing email I received Tuesday: “My husband and I are asking you to use any influence you may have, to keep Jordan on the team.  He is a fan favorite and without him, I don’t think we will attend any future games.”

It’s not unheard of for a player to make that sort of transformation. But it’s not something for which the Wolves should plan.

4 The Wolves wind up in the lottery again this season and nab a top-three pick that they convert into a star. The 2021 draft is said to be quite deep. The problem is the Wolves will owe their first round pick to Golden State as part of the Andrew Wiggins trade unless it’s a top-three pick – in which case it stays with Minnesota.

The bad news is a top three pick would likely mean the Wolves had a disaster of a 2020-21 season – further clouding their path even with Towns and Russell – unless they happened to just miss the playoffs and get lucky in the lottery drawing.

And even if they did get such a pick, it might be another young unproven player who takes time to develop. By the time it happened, KAT might be frustrated enough that another rebuild was ushered in.

All that said: Rosas has proved to be patient. He didn’t give up in his pursuit of Russell after losing out in free agency, instead circling back several months later via trade.

Adding another top-flight player could require similar patience and perhaps even more acumen from Rosas to pull off.

Amazing college football finish leads to epic gambling moment

If we are being honest, there aren’t a lot of great studio shows in sports right now — particularly in this specific moment as the coronavirus pandemic limits the options and energy for programs like ESPN College GameDay.

But the late night edition of SportsCenter, hosted by Scott Van Pelt, continues to be one of the rare exceptions. It’s funny. It’s informative. The interviews hit the right tone. And the planned segments are often memorable.

If you’ve watched the show even casually, you have probably noticed a bit called “Bad Beats,” in which Van Pelt runs highlights from the ends of games — many of them seemingly lopsided and/or meaningless — to show how a strange twist impacted tens of thousands of dollars switching hands based on gambling lines.

I don’t watch the late night SportsCenter every night. I haven’t seen all the Bad Beats segments. But one of the games from the segment Monday might have been the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) that I’ve ever seen.

First, the premise: That you would wager on Virginia, favored by 39.5 points, to either cover or not cover the spread against Abilene Christian. I mean, I’ve plopped down a few wagers in Vegas on weekend trips, but I can’t imagine ever touching a game like that.

So what happened? Abilene Christian was trailing by 42 points late, but scored a late touchdown to pull within 36 with just under 90 seconds left. They’re going to cover! Abilene Christian gambling fans rejoice!

They were so excited to score a TD that they got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and the extra point was blocked. But still: Up 36. When Virginia gets the ball back, it’s going to be three kneel downs and an Abilene Christian cover, right?

You would think so. Abilene Christian didn’t even bother trying an on side kick. Instead, the ball went deep, where a Virginia player had to go retrieve it and fall on it at the 5 yard line. Fine. No worries. 1:25 left, Abilene Christian has just one timeout. Three plays and the game is over.

But then the first of two amazing things happened. Virginia, up 36, attempted a double pass from its own end zone.

Wait, what? You have to be kidding. I am not. Watch it for yourself, but be sure to pause the full segment after the double pass so you don’t spoil the ending yet.

Why on earth did they do that? Um, it was an accident. From Dailyprogress.com:

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae looked at the wrong line on his play sheet while being a little distracted trying to juggle substitutions. “Robert Anae was off a line,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall laughed. “He called in the wrong play at the end. We’re trying to run out the clock and we end up getting a double pass called out of our end zone.

The resulting play ended up as a safety. So then it was 49-15 Virginia. The Cavaliers were still comfortably ahead, but Abilene Christian was for sure going to cover, right?

Well … Abilene Christian got the ball on the ensuing free kick and started marching down the field. But on the very last play of the game, Abilene Christian’s QB was hit as he threw the ball. It was intercepted and returned 84 yards for a touchdown as time expired. Final score: 55-15. Virginia wins by 40 and covers by half a point.

Honestly, I don’t know when I will stop thinking about the end of this game.

Ed Davis might be the Wolves’ most important new player next season

A flurry of moves over the last five days has served to further reshape the Timberwolves’ roster.

President Gersson Rosas and his staff drafted three players in the first round Wednesday — most notably Anthony Edwards with the No. 1 overall pick — added Ricky Rubio in a headline-worthy trade, then re-signed priority restricted free agents Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez.

Amid all that, it might be easy to overlook what seems like an “oh by the way” transaction Sunday: trading salary/roster fillers Omari Spellman and Jacob Evans, along with a future second round pick, to the Knicks for veteran big man Ed Davis.

While Edwards is the most important move (by far) for the long run, Rubio is the most interesting and fun move and deals for Beasley and Hernangomez are the types of deals that can make the Wolves more competitive for the duration of Karl-Anthony Towns’ contract, Davis might end up being the new player who has the most significant impact on how the Wolves play in the short-term — a season that begins in less than a month.

Davis has proven adept over the course of his career in both offensive and defensive pick and roll situations. At 6-9, with a 7-2 wingspan, Davis is good at contesting shots, grabbing rebounds and snaring both putbacks and passes for dunks.

So? There are a lot of players like that in the NBA.

Yes. And the Wolves haven’t really had one for a while. That single deficiency doesn’t explain all of their defensive woes in recent seasons, even as Tom Thibodeau and then Ryan Saunders (and staff) looked to improve it with schemes and effort.

But a player like Davis is particularly useful in the modern NBA — and perhaps even more so when paired with Towns, an offensive unicorn and a defensive albatross.

Davis knows what Wolves assistant David Vanterpool, in charge of the defense, wants on that end of the court after playing three seasons in Portland while Vanterpool was an assistant there. And he knows what Pablo Prigioni, in charge of the Wolves’ offense, wants on that end of the court after playing with the Nets in 2018-19 while Prigioni was there.

Perhaps even more importantly, Davis thrived in 2018-19 with the Nets while D’Angelo Russell was enjoying his best NBA season there and making an All-Star team.

Local NBA writer Dane Moore has the valuable numbers: The Nets were 11.7 points per 100 possessions better in 2018-19 when Davis and Russell were on the court together than when Russell was on the court without Davis. Almost all of that positive difference came on the defensive end, but they were slightly better on offense as well.

Without poring through thousands of Nets possessions from that season, my hunch is that Davis’ work as a team defender and his ability to cover in pick-and-roll situations was a huge boon on defense to the similarly challenged Russell. And on offense, he was a willing target for dunks and putbacks — as you can see on this highlight package.

In that season, Davis finished No. 9 out of 96 power forwards in defensive real plus-minus. The two main power forwards the Wolves employed — Dario Saric and Taj Gibson — finished No. 89 and No. 91, respectively.

Last year’s Wolves featured a lot of Robert Covington and Jake Layman at power forward — then eventually some James Johnson and Hernangomez after the trade deadline. All of them functioned more as “stretch fours,” making up for being undersized to varying degrees by being able to create favorable offensive matchups with their shooting ability.

Covington is gone. Layman and Hernangomez return and figure to function nicely as stretch fours during certain parts of the game, with Hernangomez getting the bulk of the minutes as a presumed starter with his new contract (two years plus an option). No. 28 pick Jaden McDaniels is a long-term project.

Davis should have a clear and important role: Give the Wolves 15-20 minutes per game as a backup — either alongside Towns as a power forward or in place of Towns at center — while delivering valuable offense and defense at the rim and sometimes even being in a game-closing lineup.

Davis is not a stretch four in any sense. He has attempted exactly four three-pointers in his 668-game, six-team NBA career. Davis has made none.

But I dare say the Wolves haven’t had a player with a similar role since the second coming of Kevin Garnett in 2015-16. I would not suggest Davis, a career backup, should be a straight 1 for 1 comparison with a Hall of Famer legendary for his defense and intensity.

But as a player type, particularly at that stage of KG’s career? He is a fair enough match. The Wolves were a very good defensive team when Garnett was on the court that season. Then Thibodeau decided he didn’t want him any more, and the middle became a mess for the back half of the decade.

If Davis can restore some order, he could end up being the most important new player on the court next season.

 

Star corner Richard Sherman heaps praise on Vikings WR Justin Jefferson

49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, one of the NFL’s best over the past decade and a player who has a good chance to wind up in the Hall of Fame someday, qualifies as a keen observer of wide receiver talent.

As such, it was notable to hear what he had to say recently when talking about Vikings rookie WR Justin Jefferson with NBC broadcaster and Pro Football Focus owner Cris Collinsworth

Building off the premise of how high Jefferson has been in PFF’s wide receiver rankings this season — he sits at No. 2 overall behind Davante Adams and has several top individual weeks — Sherman heaped praise on the Vikings rookie.

We talked about some of that on Thursday’s Access Vikings podcast, but here is a more of what Sherman had to say:

“He’s a rookie and he’s playing like he’s a five, six-year vet. You have to once again tip your hat to the kid,” Sherman said. “He’s not only taken advantage of the opportunity but shown all the people who thought he was just a slot receiver and wasn’t a great route runner, he’s putting on a clinic week in and week out.”

Sherman said Jefferson combines some of the best traits of two other veteran NFC North receivers — Detroit’s Marvin Jones and Chicago’s Allen Robinson — and said he thinks Jefferson is worthy of Pro Bowl and All-Pro consideration.

Jefferson leads all rookie receivers with 762 yards, and it will be fun to watch how he stacks up against another talented young wideout — Dallas rookie CeeDee Lamb, who has 595 yards this season — on Sunday.

Jefferson’s yardage total ranks him No. 7 in the NFL. That trails the man he essentially replaced — Stefon Diggs, who has 906 yards this season for Buffalo, ranking No. 2 in the league — but Jefferson’s production has been more than enough to ensure a smooth transition.

“He’s walked in a situation where Stefon Diggs had just been traded. Huge, huge, huge shoes to fill,” Sherman said. “And I think he’s gone out there and they haven’t really missed a beat.”

Fan trying to get Yannick Ngakoue to the Pro Bowl — and hurt the Vikings

Yannick Ngakoue, the defensive end acquired for six games by the Vikings from Jacksonville before he was re-gifted to Baltimore for lesser draft pick compensation, might cost Minnesota even more if a Jacksonville fan’s crusade is successful.

Follow the bouncing ball: When the Vikings acquired Ngakoue in late August, they agreed to send Jacksonville a 2021 second-round pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-round pick.

The “conditional” reportedly was this: If Ngakoue makes the Pro Bowl, it becomes a fourth-round pick owed. If he makes the Pro Bowl and his team wins the Super Bowl, it becomes a third round pick.

Those conditions transferred to Baltimore upon the second trade in October, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported. That means that if Ngakoue makes the Pro Bowl as a member of the Ravens, the Vikings owe a fourth-round pick in 2022. If he makes the Pro Bowl and Baltimore wins the Super Bowl, it becomes a third-round pick.

Fan voting counts for one-third of the means for selecting Pro Bowl selections (with player vote and coach vote accounting for another one-third each).

When voting opened this week, a Jacksonville fan on Reddit started to drum up support for others to join him in voting for Ngakoue, in hopes of improving his team’s draft position at the expense of the Vikings.

Now, what isn’t exactly clear (and hasn’t been reported) is whether the Vikings trade with Baltimore — in which Minnesota received a 2021 third-round Ravens pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick — also carries the same conditions on that 2022 pick. If that’s the case, the Jacksonville fan crusade would actually be hurting Baltimore the most.

That said, the Vikings have already lost plenty of draft capital in the deal no matter what. The second-round pick owed to Jacksonville in 2021 would be No. 45 overall based on their current 4-5 record, while the third-round pick they are getting from Baltimore would be No. 86 overall with the Ravens sitting at 6-3.

Then again, the disparity was looking much worse a few weeks ago when the Vikings were 1-5.

The Vikings are 3-0 since trading Ngakoue, who had five sacks and two forced fumbles in six games with the Vikings but had a tendency to be a feast-or-famine player in his short time in Minnesota.

The Ravens are 1-2 since the trade, with Ngakoue registering just three tackles and no sacks in 104 defensive snaps spanning those three games. He ranks No. 40 (out of 43) defensive ends in Pro Football Focus’ grades among players with at least that many snaps during that span.

That’s no way to make the Pro Bowl, now is it?

Timberwolves trade for Ricky Rubio is all about family

Armed with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and two more picks in the top 33, the Timberwolves were in a unique position going into Wednesday’s big night.

They had months to prepare, had a room full of really smart analytical minds and a fan base ready to watch them deploy a series of three-dimensional chess moves to maximize the value of their assets.

And in the end … the moves deployed by President Gersson Rosas and his staff seemed more like a nice, wholesome game of checkers.

They kept the top pick, selecting the combination of best athlete and best positional fit in Anthony Edwards.

Then they traded the No. 17 pick for Ricky Rubio and two more late first-round picks — one of which was upgraded from No. 25 to No. 23 in another trade. Those late selections yielded a couple of projects in Argentine guard Leandro Bolmaro and Washington forward Jaden McDaniels.

Some trading, to be sure, but pretty basic stuff.

The two biggest prizes from the night were a 19-year-old and a 30-year-old, which seems a curious fact when considering one of the most consistent messages from Rosas has been the need to find players who fit the same “timeline” as franchise cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns (who just turned 25, in case you hadn’t seen his Instagram) and D’Angelo Russell (who will be 25 in a few months).

Maybe if you average the ages of Edwards and Rubio, you achieve the desired effect?

Without the ability to yet find a third star-quality player who fits that timeline or to recoup tremendous value for the top pick, the Wolves seemingly pivoted to a different prong of their long-term strategy:

Building a team that has tremendous values.

Because if there has been a co-starring message from Rosas in recent months existing next to his pledge to find players fitting the right timeline, it is that he wants the organization to build a family-like culture that shows itself on the court and off.

In that sense, one can imagine an important role for Rubio — one he should fill beautifully.

Countless fan testimonials speak to the love that still exists in Minnesota for Rubio, but it’s important to remember: He was Towns’ teammate for two seasons. He played under head coach Ryan Saunders, when Saunders was an assistant coach, for three seasons.

“Ricky was definitely the first one to make me feel comfortable in Minnesota,” Towns said in October 2017 before his first game against Rubio after Ricky was traded to the Jazz. “Being able to play with him was a huge honor. I became a smarter player. I just learned a lot from him.”

Rubio knows the devastating pain of a parent dying, having experienced his mother’s death from cancer in 2016. That’s an important (though of course tragic) bond he shares with Towns, Saunders and Edwards, all of whom have also lost parents at a relatively young age.

And he will return to a Wolves team that is different in many ways from the one he left. Tom Thibodeau was in charge in the summer of 2017 when Rubio was traded to Utah. That subsequent Wolves team embarked on a joyless march to 47 victories and a playoff berth, only to see it all implode months later when Jimmy Butler forced his way out — ushering in the Rosas era.

In his first go-round with the Wolves, Rubio was imagined as a franchise player. (For a full recounting of those years, let me point you toward this oral history I published in 2017, just days before he was inevitably traded).

His time away has reset those expectations and Rubio has settled into a more realistic role: A complementary piece on a good team.

He comes back with those same realistic expectations — and with some subtle improvements. Rubio, whose shooting inaccuracy once inspired me to write a dissertation-length blog post with statistical evidence showing how he was perhaps the worst shooter in modern NBA history, made 36.1% of his three-pointers last season in Phoenix.

That’s not Steph Curry-esque, but that’s good enough that an opponent daring him to shoot by going under screens will pay for it at a decent clip.

Defensively, Rubio has always been good in team concepts and made up for a lack of lateral quickness with good ball-hawking instincts. He only seems to be getting better with age; last year in Phoenix he ranked No. 9 in the NBA among point guards in defensive real plus-minus. On a Wolves team with plenty of suspect defenders, his acumen and ability to get a team organized should not be overlooked.

But if we toss those things aside, as important as they are, we are left with this: Even as his skill set was hotly debated in the later years of his first go-round with the Wolves, Rubio’s personal qualities were never in question.

He is by all accounts a wonderful teammate, a genuinely good person and the kind of player who inspires joy.

He will make you change your face and be happy. Even for a franchise working the edges to find hidden efficiencies, there is plenty of value in that.

The draft is tonight; what are the final Wolves (and NBA) rumblings?

The pandemic-related delays in the NBA calendar have added close to five months of additional time to an already highly speculative draft process.

Teams have had countless opportunities to think through — and rethink — what they are going to do. But it’s hard to imagine they have gleaned a whole lot of additional information with that extra time, given that the players they would like to be evaluating haven’t played at all since March.

That is the backdrop for what should be a unique and interesting draft, one that finally arrives Wednesday night.

With that in mind, here is an attempt to catch you up on what we already know and what is being reported — both in terms of the Wolves, who have the No. 1 overall pick in addition to holding No. 17 and No. 33, and the NBA overall, which is in the midst of a flurry of blockbuster deals in a compressed offseason.

So, what’s the latest on the Wolves?

Wolves chatter has become more scarce in recent days, which — counterintuitively, I know — is often a sign that something is about to happen. The Jimmy Butler trade a couple years ago, for instance, popped during a period of prolonged silence after a flurry of rumors flew initially.

In this case, we know Minnesota has to do something by tonight. The most persistent trade rumbling has the Wolves dealing the top pick to Charlotte for the No. 3 overall pick plus a player — perhaps someone like Miles Bridges, a 22-year-old small forward who averaged 13 points last season and still has two seasons left on his rookie deal.

Wolves executives have kept their thinking very internal, which is the best way to maximize leverage. But center James Wiseman, a likely top three pick, does not seem to be in their plans. If they do take him at the top of the draft tonight, it will almost certainly signal a trade is coming.

Betting markets are of little help, too. Though they have swung in the direction of both Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball being the top pick, particularly if the Wolves keep it, the odds are now pretty much split on either being the No. 1 overall choice.

Edwards, Jim Souhan argues, is the safest pick. Ball has perhaps more upside but figuring out how he fits with D’Angelo Russell would be a bigger challenge.

In short: Anything can happen with the Wolves tonight. You’ll just have to watch at 7 p.m. to find out.

What about the rest of the NBA?

Hoo boy. Where do we start?

*The Bucks have already signaled their intention to go all-in (and a bid to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo) with a blockbuster trade to acquire guard Jrue Holiday from New Orleans.

*The Suns acquired Chris Paul from Oklahoma City, which probably ends any Wolves dreams (if they weren’t dashed already) of acquiring Devin Booker from Phoenix.

*The Rockets are on the verge of breaking up their core, with deals for both James Harden and Russell Westbrook being considered. Harden might wind up on the Nets, which would give them an interesting and formidable Big Three and reunite Harden with Kevin Durant (plus pair him in a backcourt with Kyrie Irving).

If the Nets make that move, they might need to clear some other salary and roster spots — and the Wolves could benefit from that, given that Brooklyn has some interesting complementary pieces on its roster that could match well in a trade.

*Several other deals for draft picks have already been announced. You can count on a lot more emerging between now and the end of Wednesday.

Buckle up. It’s going to be a fun night. But get your rest Thursday. Because free agency starts Friday.

Now we know: Dalvin Cook’s ‘swiss chard’ was part of a Jimmy Fallon joke

A few days after shredding the Packers defense, Vikings running back Dalvin Cook hopped on a Zoom call with reporters and introduced the world to an unfamiliar phrase.

“We just run yards like Swiss chard,” Cook said.

Vikings beat writer Ben Goessling described the interaction like this in his story: Cook invoked the leafy vegetable twice Wednesday to describe the Vikings’ running game, with a catchphrase that seemed to go over the heads of the reporters who heard it. No matter; his point was made.

In the online version of the story, Star Tribune editors included a link to explain to readers exactly what Swiss chard is. (Short version: a spinach-like vegetable that grows and spreads quite easily).

Maybe Dalvin was intimating that his yards were multiplying quickly and uncontrollably, like chard?

Or … maybe we now know the truth. It was all part of an elaborate and amusing Jimmy Fallon prank.

In a joke called “Drop it in,” the Tonight Show host asks athletes to work in strange phrases during interviews. He’s done it before with baseball players and tennis stars.

Cook’s “swiss chard” line was part of a series of bizarre phrases that NFL players worked in on behalf of the show. (Aside: As someone who used to slip obscure words into stories as a gift to friends, I am all for this gag).

Among the other highlights:

*Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce calling Andy Reid a “rollercoaster tycoon,” which again had reporters befuddled when it originally appeared in late September.

*Tampa Bay tight end Rob Gronkowski using the phrase, “Must be maple syrup because butter don’t drizzle like that,” attributed to his mom. He was forced to clarify, which was even funnier.

*Rams corner Jalen Ramsey saying, “Sometimes you gotta throw the sauce at your boss.”

You can see smiles on the edges of a lot of players’ lips. Cook deserves quite a bit of credit for playing it as straight as he did.

And maybe reporters will be on the lookout in the future.

The next time Cook slips in a nonsensical but amusing phrase, we’ll know to just leaf it alone.

Stefon Diggs TD helped Vikings … until DeAndre Hopkins made the play of the year

If the Vikings are going to crawl back into any sort of realistic playoff position, they are going to have to win almost every game left on their schedule AND probably still get some help from teams above them faltering in the standings.

Sunday was pretty brutal from that standpoint, though it looked promising for a little while. Jacksonville held a late lead against Green Bay in what would have been a stunning upset … only to have the Packers rally for a 24-20 win.

Perhaps the bigger blow came in the Buffalo vs. Arizona game. In a back-and-forth game with plenty of drama, the Bills went ahead 30-26 on a beautiful lunging touchdown catch by Stefon Diggs — yes, the old friend of the Vikings — with just 34 seconds left.

An AFC team knocking off what looks to be one of the more vulnerable NFC playoff contenders would have been a nice gift for the Vikings. A Cardinals loss would have put them at 5-4, giving the Vikings a shot at narrowing the gap to just one game with a win at Chicago tonight.

But … you probably know the rest. The Cardinals moved the ball to midfield in the closing seconds. And Kyler Murray’s desperate, scrambling heave into the end zone — where DeAndre Hopkins was surrounded by three Buffalo defenders — was somehow pulled in by Hopkins.

Ballgame. 32-30. And a blow to the Vikings.

Before the weekend started, FiveThirtyEight gave Minnesota a 29% chance of making the playoffs. That has dipped to 25% after the Cardinals win, the Packers win, the Saints win and the Rams beating Seattle (leaving both of them with six wins).

Football Outsiders, which was already less optimistic in its projections, dropped the Vikings from 17% to 11.7%.

It was a fantastic catch by Diggs. It was an unreal catch by Hopkins. And the net result is the Vikings needing a win Monday even more than they did when Sunday started.