The Vikings Are Being Labeled a Dark Horse Contender … Again

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch (USA TODAY Sports)

Here we go again. The national media is labeling the Minnesota Vikings a dark-horse Super Bowl candidate for what seems like the fifth year in a row. Some teams — I’m looking at you, Chicago — would be thrilled to get that nomination, but this is getting old in Minnesota. So let’s take a look at some of these dark horse labels and see what the Vikings need to do to gain the illustrious “contender” status.

When asked to name a dark horse Super Bowl candidate this season, former player turned analyst Will Blackmon responded on Twitter by saying, “It’s the Vikings every year.” He’s not wrong. Over the last five seasons, the Vikings have averaged 9.4 wins per year, firmly planting themselves in the close-but-no-cigar category. The Vikings have played second fiddle to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, who have averaged 10.4 wins over the last five seasons. So it’s no wonder most people think the Vikings are usually good, not great.

The roster has also experienced relatively low turnover over that span. In 2019, all defensive starters had been with the team for at least three seasons. That kind of continuity is enough to get excited about running it back. But it might bring less excitement than they could have earned with a splash signing or high draft pick.

A few key things are holding the team back from national recognition as a threat to the crown. One of them is Kirk Cousins. Despite his good stats, most people don’t think he can carry a team to the Super Bowl. He’s one of the most polarizing players in the league due to his stellar passing numbers but a dearth of wins. Over the past few years, he had similar stats to players like Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Derek Carr, yet he almost always falls behind them in quarterback rankings. Over the last two seasons, he has a higher quarterback rating than all of them. Maybe if he had a name like Jackmerius Tacktheritrix and his own production company a la TB12, he would get some respect.

Minnesota’s inconsistency is another reason for their trudge through mediocrity. The Vikings make more swings between playoff and non-playoff years than Byron Buxton during batting practice. It’s hard to have confidence in a team that yo-yos back and forth so often. Even in down years, though, the Vikings seem to have just enough positive takeaways to give fans hope that the next season could still be great. According to FanDuel, who ranked the Vikings as their best dark horse Super Bowl bet for 2023, the Vikings were in the top half for both offensive and defensive DVOA last year despite not making the playoffs. It’s little tidbits like that which make people think, You know what? We were a few plays from being 11-6. I bet next year is our year.

The Vikings have always seemed like a team with a top-end roster but never wind up being able to fit the pieces together. The defense could be great, but the offense was poor, or vice versa. Maybe that had something to do with a head coach who refused to take any part in the offensive side of the ball.

Their hated rival is the last big reason the Vikings have usually been labeled as a dark horse. As long as the Packers have Rodgers at the helm, most pundits will hesitate to pick the Purple over the Green. The Packers have won seven of the last 10 NFC North division titles. Even without Davante Adams, they seem to be the favorite to do so again this year. CBS still tabbed the Packers to win the division despite having YMCA rec team players at wide receiver. In that case, starting a playoff run for the Vikings as a wild card team would be an obvious uphill battle.

So what can the Vikings do to break free from this cycle and become a top contender in the NFC? It starts with becoming a consistent football team under new coach Kevin O’Connell. The roster has been solid the last several years, but it has never been able to produce successive quality seasons. Kicking the Packers off their podium would be another step towards national recognition.

It’s no secret the Packers have won 13 games three seasons in a row. If Cousins could win some more games in primetime and against favored opponents, he could shake the reputation of being a guy who can’t get it done when it matters. What may be a blessing for some teams has turned into a curse for the Vikings. Sitting in the void between good and great as a perennial dark horse has gotten tiresome. It’s time to move to the front of the pack.

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