The Miami Dolphins game should have been over after Dalvin Cook‘s 53-yard touchdown run that put the Minnesota Vikings up 24-10 with 3:15 left in the fourth quarter. Patrick Peterson’s pick of old friend Teddy Bridgewater should have sealed the win. But if we know anything about the Vikings, it’s that they can’t avoid one-score games. They have had 28 games decided by one possession since 2020, which leads the NFL.
The Dolphins scored late to make it 24-16, but Minnesota held on to win and are 5-1 for the first time since 2016. That should be a cause for celebration, right? They have a new, offensive-focused head coach who’s creating a great culture. The Vikings won in Miami for the first time since 1976 when Fran Tarkenton was under center. They’re scrappy and resilient. Built to win in the parity-infused NFL.
So why isn’t everyone convinced this team is going somewhere this year?
Well, for starters, the Vikings finished 8-8 in 2016. That was the year Bridgewater suffered his season-ending ACL injury in practice, and Rick Spielman traded for Sam Bradford. Minnesota won its first five games, including an early win over the Green Bay Packers, before losing in Philadelphia. Sound familiar?
The Vikings are also coming off two .500 seasons under Mike Zimmer, where nearly every game came down to the wire. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah decided to retain the core of the roster, and they’re starting to look like a slightly upgraded version of Zimmer’s teams. Sure, the offense looks more modern and focused around Justin Jefferson. And yeah, Ed Donatell runs a 3-4 defense after years of a 4-3 under Zimmer.
Minnesota is marginally better but in a meaningful way.
Still, this doesn’t look like a team run by Sean McVay’s former offensive coordinator. It looks like a team run by a young guy who couldn’t understand why Zimmer insisted on a 1990s offense. Kevin O’Connell‘s creativity has shone through in his scripted opening drives and near the red zone. But the offense has stalled out in the second quarter in the past two weeks, and it didn’t get going until late in the first quarter against the Dolphins.
It’s always better to come away with seven instead of three in the red zone, but the Vikings have to get the ball there. Minnesota’s offense is Ferarri-expensive, and the Vikings replaced the commercial trucker driving it with a hotshot F1 driver in the offseason. Still, the new hire seems to be having trouble with the clutch. Maybe you don’t buy the Ferrari analogy because Cousins is under center. And sure, an Italian sportscar seems a little exciting for the goober from small-town Michigan. Regardless, the $100 million offense is capable of more, and the coaching staff hasn’t figured out how to open it up yet.
They leave themselves vulnerable to losses to inferior opponents until they do. A loss to the air-raid Arizona Cardinals out of the break could lead to a trap game against the Washington Commanders on the road the week after. Then they must travel to Western New York, where Stefon Diggs and the Buffalo Bills will be looking to put one on them. Suddenly, they could enter a vicious cycle where a loss to Arizona leads to a bad loss in DC. Then a loss in Buffalo and at home against the Dallas Cowboys brings them to .500. Bill Belichick outcoaches O’Connell a week later, and suddenly, the Vikings are 5-6 heading into the New York Jets game on Dec. 4.
All the positive momentum is gone. The small margins of victory turn into close defeats. The O’Connell Vikings start to feel like the Zimmer Vikings. Cousins presses, Jefferson is upset, and teams are starting to score 30-plus on Ed Donatell’s defense. The focus turns to Adofo-Mensah, who hasn’t gotten much out of his draft yet. Many of the players on this year’s roster are on the books for the next couple of years – change will be difficult. It’s 2016 again, except Case Keenum isn’t sitting on the bench, ready to save everyone with a miracle run next year.
Take a deep breath. There’s another way this could go.
The Vikings almost beat the Cardinals in the desert last year. If Greg Joseph hits that field goal, they win a high-scoring, entertaining game and start the season 1-1. We know the blueprint of how to beat this Arizona team. Kliff Kingsbury always falls apart late in the season. It’s double-XP weekend, and Kyler Murray will be playing Call of Duty late into the night. The Cardinals were overrated last year, and teams are exposing them this season.
Minnesota can’t beat them by scoring 25 points. But they can if they open things up a little and score 30-plus. Maybe we will start to see shades of McVay in this offense after the bye. If they can get the offense going against Arizona, why not Washington? Someone needs to put Ron Rivera and Carson Wentz out of their misery. And 7-1 is enough of a cushion where they could drop the Buffalo and Dallas games and be fine. Would we be concerned that they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles and then the Bills and Cowboys? Of course, but let’s address that when we get there.
For now, I understand the anxiety and pressure to try to figure this team out. It’s a new regime. The Vikings have spent a lot of money on their team. We all want to know who they are, and usually, we do by the bye week. But we don’t. The scores kinda look like Zimmer’s scores, but the play is modern and exciting at times. The defense is certainly different. Cousins is playing more freely. Jefferson is getting the ball. The Miami and Philadelphia games aside, this team is fun to watch, and away games can be more of a grind anyway.
Everyone will want to convince you that they know what this team is. It’s comfortable to be pessimistic, to assume this is 2016 again — same old Vikings. There’s a bias to knowing, and it’s preferable to the vulnerability of admitting a lack of knowledge. But nobody knows what this team is. I’m not sure they do yet. They flew a little close to the sun in Miami. But they persevered through the heat and the humidity and came out winners. The Vikings need to take a week and figure out how to score 30-plus a game and ensure that the defense can continue to hold teams in the 20s.
If they can, this team will be different than the ones that came before it. If they cannot, someone will tell you they told you so. But they know nothing right now. They’ve just seen this team lose before when it matters. And so far, outside of the flop in Philadelphia, the Vikings have started to reverse that trend this year.