A defining weekend in New York for the Twins and Vikings

At the risk of making too much out of geography and scheduling symmetry, I’d nevertheless like to say this: the two highest-profile teams in Minnesota have a defining weekend coming up in New York.

It doesn’t feel like a stretch because taken separately, I feel the same way about both the Twins and the Vikings. It’s particularly convenient that their combined Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule happens in roughly the same place.

The more important one, obviously, is the Twins. Their five-game American League Division Series starts Friday at Yankee Stadium.

The Twins feel like they’re at the beginning of a stretch that could see them reach the playoffs a bunch of times in the next half-decade, so whatever happens in this series can be viewed through that lens.

And of course the Twins will point out that the players on this year’s roster weren’t around for almost all of the team’s nightmarish recent playoff history.

But it will be a huge disappointment if this series against the Yankees isn’t a series. And if the Twins want to have a legitimate chance of winning this series, and at a minimum competing in this series, they need to win at least one game at Yankee Stadium this weekend.

Clearing the low bar that is — at least — winning one playoff game is something they haven’t done in their last 13 tries dating back to 2004. Ten of those losses have come to the Yankees.

That last win was Game 1 of the ALDS in (the old) Yankee Stadium, and I was there as part of the Star Tribune’s coverage team. Johan Santana threw seven shutout innings. Jacque Jones homered. The Twins won 2-0 and had a great chance to win the next night before losing 7-6 in 12 innings to start the losing streak. I was 27 years old, unmarried with no kids, and eating 15 tacos had never even occurred to me. That’s a long time ago.

Like all such streaks and “curses,” that matters until it doesn’t — a wisdom espoused by Twins relief pitcher Trevor May and relayed by our Phil Miller on the latest Twins Insider podcast.

History can feel like a weight, even when it only amounts to carrying someone else’s burdens. A competitive series against the Yankees, starting with at least a split of the first two games, would begin to change the old narrative.

The Vikings face a more interesting test — lest urgent in the big-picture, but perhaps more urgent than the amount of schedule in front of them might indicate.

They’re 2-2, coming off another disappointing loss to the Bears in which the offense failed to do much of anything until very late.

It’s already been an interesting — passive-aggressive Minnesota aunt “interesting” — few days since then, with Kirk Cousins apologizing to receiver Adam Thielen for missed connections while Stefon Diggs missed practice Wednesday under unclear, non-injury circumstances.

The Giants are likewise 2-2 and have a poor pass defense. This is a game on paper the Vikings should win. They’re 5.5-point betting favorites on the road. FiveThirtyEight uses a different formula and has the Vikings with a 2.5-point edge. Combine that with basically toss-up games (per FiveThirtyEight and the eye test) the next two weeks against Philadelphia (home) and Detroit (road) and this game against the Giants becomes extra important.

If Cousins struggles again and the Vikings lose, the scrutiny will only intensify; Peter King had an interesting nugget in his FMIA column this week: “Kirk Cousins’ world is crumbling. Twenty games into what is very likely to be a three-year Vikings career—and might even be two—it’s clear he’s losing the confidence of the locker room.”

Might even be two? On this week’s Access Vikings podcast we tried to figure out exactly what that would look like given Cousins has a guaranteed three-year deal and the cap hit in the third year is $31 million, but even the fact that we’re talking about it shows us that just 20 games into his tenure we’re at a crossroads of sorts.

It’s not as bad as, say, 2013. But in a little extra bit of serendipity, this is the first Vikings road game against the Giants since that Monday night game in which Josh Freeman started his one and only game for Minnesota (a game so bad, let me remind you, that it prompted an oral history of watching it).

A Vikings win in which Cousins plays well would beat back the skeptics, at least temporarily, and serve as a reminder that the NFL season is quite long even at 16 games.

We’ll get some important answers about the Twins and Vikings this weekend, regardless of whether we like them or not.

No respect: Preview originally says Yankees vs. Minnesota Wild

The Twins are projecting confidence as they head to

New York for the American League Division Series against the Yankees.

But they don’t seem to have a lot of believers outside their own clubhouse. Vegas odds have the Twins, even after a 101-win season, a distant third in the American League behind the Astros and Yankees.

Most publications at least — AT LEAST — get the Twins’ name correct on first try.

That was not, sadly, the case with Newsweek. The publication did a roundup Wednesday of how various experts see the MLB playoffs shaking out (spoiler alert: lots of talk about the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers), and in the initial swing Newsweek referred to the Yankees playing the “Minnesota Wild.”

It was fixed a couple hours later, but … ouch.

I will say this, though: If the Wild’s goal total this season can somehow match the Twins’ home run total (307), we could be talking about the Twins — sorry, Wild! — in the Stanley Cup finals.

What would it take for the Vikings to bench Kirk Cousins?

A wall of TVs playing various sports channels dominates a section of the media room at the Vikings’ headquarters in Eagan. Upon arrival there around 9:20 Wednesday morning, both ESPN and NFL Network were playing on separate TVs. Both had talking head discussion shows on — and in both cases, they were talking about Kirk Cousins and the Vikings’ offense.

Not in a good way, of course.

This was a little more than 12 hours after Cousins had apologized to Adam Thielen on a podcast, which was a couple days after Thielen had expressed frustration (in general terms, he later said) about the Vikings’ passing offense in a 16-6 loss to the Bears.

And Wednesday marked two weeks since Cousins had said this a few days after a disappointing loss at Green Bay: “Believe me, I’m not going to be playing quarterback here much longer if I go out and play the way I did this past Sunday. I understand that, and I’ve got to go out and play at a much higher level.”

Given he arguably played worse against Chicago, and with that quote as a jumping off point, let’s examine this question: What exactly would it take for the Vikings to bench Cousins?

It’s a popular thing for fans to wonder about, particularly when postgame emotions are running hot.

I don’t ponder that question lightly, but I don’t think we’re necessarily close to a point where the Vikings should consider it — the reason I ultimately decided not to broach the subject with Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on Wednesday.

But maybe weighing all the factors will provide some clarity on just where the Vikings and Cousins are. Here are some of the key ingredients that have led teams to make mid-year quarterback switches in the past (in cases where it was pertinent, I tried to find quarterbacks of similar pedigree and salary to Cousins):

*Injuries are the most obvious one — like when Sam Bradford swooped when Teddy Bridgewater was hurt in 2016 or Case Keenum took over for Bradford in 2017.

But that’s not a factor here. Cousins is healthy, and in fact his durability (no missed starts since the beginning of 2015) is one of his main selling points.

*A veteran is supplanted by a high-profile rookie. Example: Daniel Jones, who the Vikings will face Sunday in New York, taking over for Eli Manning after the Giants started 0-2.

The Vikings, though, have no such prospects. They kept Sean Mannion as their backup over Kyle Sloter. Mannion isn’t ancient (27), but he was drafted in 2015. He’s not a prospect they are itching to see in a game. Practice squad QB Jake Browning is a longer-term project.

*A team doesn’t really have a true No. 1 guy and shuffles between two different quarterbacks. See any number of Vikings teams from the mid-1980s through present — most notably the Tommy Kramer vs. Wade Wilson era.

That’s obviously not the case with the current Vikings. Cousins, by virtue of his track record and $84 million guaranteed contract, has been the clear No. 1 starter from Day 1.

*A team is at the end of a lost-cause season and is looking for at least a temporary change. Good example: The Bears benched Jay Cutler near the end of a poor 2014 season in favor of Jimmy Clausen (a fifth-year veteran at the time). Cutler had a much higher salary and pedigree, but still he was benched.

But the comparison to Minnesota’s situation falls short here because Cutler was in his sixth year of a rocky Bears tenure and they were 5-9 with no playoff prospects. The Vikings right now are 2-2 in Cousins’ second season. While Cousins’ poor play contributed two losses, there’s plenty of season left and time to get this right. As Mike Zimmer is fond of pointing out (and did again Wednesday), the 2017 Vikings started 2-2 and finished 13-3.

*Along the lines of being patient, Dolphins fans were clamoring for Ryan Tannehill to get benched early in 2016 after a 1-4 start in favor of Matt Moore. Tannehill was the eighth-highest paid QB in the league at the time, and Moore was a viable backup with 25 career starts up to that point.

Then-coach Adam Gase said when asked about it: “No. He’s not coming out. You can ask me 100 times, he’s going to be in there the rest of the season.”

Even with a stronger backup than the Vikings have and a much worse start than the Vikings have had this season, the Dolphins stayed the course.

Tannehill played much better after that, going 7-1 in his next eight starts before a knee injury knocked him out for the season. Moore played down the stretch, went 2-1, and Miami made the playoffs.

Long story short: History suggests things would have to get a lot worse for the Vikings to make a move. There’s a lot at stake still, and their backup (Mannion) is neither very experienced (53 career passes in five seasons) nor a prospect they want to get a look at for the future. The Vikings have virtually no cap space even if they did want to add another viable QB to the mix.

Maybe I could see Cousins getting a half or quarter of a game on the bench sometime fairly soon if he’s struggling in a blowout loss. But for the foreseeable future, for better or worse, apologies or not, this is his team.

Vikings’ kryptonite: Outdoor road games against winning teams

It stands to reason that most NFL teams have a less-than-flattering record against quality opponents on the road because, well, those are the hardest games to win.

But the Vikings in recent years have had particularly ghastly outcomes in such situations, as brought to my attention by Warren Sharp of Sharp Football: 0-12-1 against teams with winning records since the start of 2016.

The tweet makes no mention of home/road, but obviously the “since 2016” part means those were all road games for the Vikings, who moved into U.S. Bank Stadium that season.

Those offensive/defensive expected vs. actual point splits are quite bad, and they help explain this: In taking a look back at all 13 games (including the NFC title game at Philadelphia), I can only find four of them in which the Vikings even held a lead at any point.

The most recent losses — including Sunday at Soldier Field — have come with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, but the cumulative defeats span three QBs (Cousins, Case Keenum and Sam Bradford) and countless offensive schemes.

There are some qualifiers to this since “winning record at the time” excludes teams that wound up being good (last year’s win at Philadelphia, though the Eagles were just 2-2 at the time of the game, was a quality road win for instance).

Still, the fact remains that the Vikings’ last win outdoors against a team with a winning record was Week 17 at Lambeau Field in 2015, a 20-13 victory over the Packers.

The Vikings won’t have a chance to break that skid this weekend at New York. The Giants are 2-2. The next road game after that is indoors at Detroit.

But their final four road games (at Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle and the L.A. Chargers) could all be outside against teams with winning records (pending Dallas having its roof open and all four expected contenders performing well).

It’s safe to say the Vikings probably need to stop that streak if they are going to have the type of season they want to have.

An underdog with 101 wins? It’s a tough year for Twins to be really good

The Twins won 101 games (second-most in franchise history) and hit 307 home runs (most in MLB history) this season. In a lot of years, at least in the past, that would make them THE national story heading into the postseason.

This year? It gets them a strange place on the undercard — a distant third in the American League pecking order going into the playoffs.

In short, so many things about what the Twins did this season were great. But their timing? Eh, it was a tough year for the Twins to be really good.

For starters, this is the first time since MLB expanded to three divisions in each league in 1994 that all three division winners from one league had at least 100 wins. The Twins, with their 101-61 record, don’t even get home field advantage for the ALDS — something they would have had in every other season from 1994-2018.

That stands in sharp contrast to 2010, the last time the Twins won the AL Central. They finished with 94 wins that season, but they had the second-best record among division winners and had home field against the Yankees (not that it, um, mattered much).

It’s a sign of the times, with a select number of very good teams — and just as many awful teams. Wholesale rebuilds (tanking, if you will) are no longer taboo and have resulted in huge success stories (like the Astros and to a lesser extent the Twins).

Four MLB teams won 100+ games this year (Houston, Yankees, Twins and Dodgers), but four of them lost 100+ games — including two in the Twins’ division (Detroit and Kansas City). There were another six teams with 90-99 wins, but also six teams with 90-99 losses.

Houston’s combination of elite pitching and offense makes the Astros decided favorites to emerge from the American League and in fact win it all. The Yankees are second in the AL pecking order — flawed but powerful, with a mighty 57-24 home record. The Twins are third, but it’s a distant third.

Westgate Sports Book has the Astros at 2 to 1 to win the World Series. The Yankees are 4 to 1. The Twins are 12 to 1.

FiveThirtyEight’s simulations give the Twins just a 5% chance to win the World Series — only a little better than the wild card A’s (4%) and Rays (3%) even though the Twins have a much better chance of advancing to at least the American League Championship Series (35%) because they don’t have to survive the one-game playoff just to get to the ALDS.

In a different season, the Twins might be the favorite to win it all. But considering their most likely path to a World Series would involve defeating, in order, the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers … you can see why that’s not the case this year.

So all hope is lost? Hardly. If your perception is that the Twins feasted on bad teams on the way to 100 wins, you’re not wrong. They were 36-11 against the Tigers, Royals, Orioles and Marlins (the 100-loss teams in the majors).

But if your perception is that the Twins ONLY did well against bad teams, you’re quite wrong. They were 14-13 this season against the other four American League playoff teams, including 4-3 against those mighty Astros.

And while it’s true the Twins were just 2-4 against the Yankees, half of those games were started by either Kyle Gibson or Martin Perez — two pitchers who might not factor much, if at all, into the postseason rotation. Jose Berrios didn’t start any of the games; Jake Odorizzi started two of them, and in one delivered six shutout innings at Yankee Stadium. The Twins’ bullpen is also in much better shape than it was during both of those series vs. New York.

Translation: As a 101-win underdog (including an MLB-best 55-26 on the road), these Twins are probably a little undervalued and underappreciated. Beating the Yankees is certainly within their reach. And running the table would only be as surprising as how the entire season-to-date has played out.