The Minnesota Vikings were 1-4 only five weeks ago. With their season circling the drain, the fanbase was split in two directions on how the Vikings should finish the season.
One train of thought was to tank for a quarterback in a strong 2024 draft class. Even if they didn’t throw games, leaning into the young players on the roster and letting them sink or swim sounded appealing. It was an opportunity to land their next franchise QB.
But that was conflicting to the loyal fan. Why would you ever want the Vikings to lose? And what would inspire the current locker room to give up on a season – especially when Kevin O’Connell spent a year and a half building the culture?
The answer is complicated, but Sunday’s opponent could be an example of what many feared the Vikings would have become.
The Denver Broncos got off to a start similar to the Vikings this year as they tried to adapt to new head coach Sean Payton. The season opened with a confounding home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders and another to the Washington Commanders.
Before the Broncos finally tallied their first win of the season over the Chicago Bears, the Miami Dolphins’ rushing attack clown-hammered Denver to the tune of 350 yards. But they lost to Nathaniel Hackett’s New York Jets a week later, and a primetime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs left the Broncos at 1-5.
At this point, Broncos fans had the same conversations as the Vikings faithful. They had a highly paid quarterback entering his late 30s and a roster that didn’t seem to click. They made bad mistakes. Denver turned the ball over and was as leaky as a submarine screen door on defense. The idea of plugging Caleb Williams or Drake Maye into the lineup had to be tantalizing, even if nobody said it.
But then the Broncos started winning. They outlasted Jordan Love and the Green Bay Packers 19-17 on Oct. 22 and ended a 16-game losing streak to the Chiefs with a 24-9 victory on Oct. 29. Denver came out of their bye week with a win over the Buffalo Bills and now own a 4-5 record with the Vikings coming to town.
At first glance, they look like a different team. The Broncos have shored up their defense and boast a plus-eight turnover margin over their last three games. Their offense has switched gears from a pass-heavy attack to one that leans on the running game, with 78 rushing attempts in their previous two outings. Denver sits 14th in the AFC standings, but they are only one game behind the Houston Texans for the final spot in the AFC.
There are a lot of reasons for Broncos fans to believe they are contenders now. Still, many of the same problems remain.
The biggest issue has been their offense’s effectiveness. The Broncos enter Sunday’s game 23rd with 6.89 expected points added in the passing game this season. They are averaging only 21.1 points per game as a team over the last seven games. Denver has won despite their offense, which has averaged 22 points per game during its winning streak.
The problem is that Denver has failed to maximize their offense. The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider pointed out that the Broncos have had an average starting field position of their 43.4-yard line since Week 8, meaning they have only taken advantage with field goals rather than touchdowns.
The Broncos have also had issues getting out of their way, tied for seventh with 64 penalties. Pre-snap penalties have been an increasingly bigger issue. Mike McGlinchey is tied with Carolina’s Ikem Ekwonu for a league-high six false starts, and the Broncos rank second as a team with a pre-snap penalty on 3.2% of their offensive plays.
You could say this is a team shifting its identity to running the ball and playing good defense — that is until you realize it isn’t the case.
The Broncos have been on a heater with 10 takeaways over their last three games, but they’ve still been taken advantage of in several areas. Their run defense is still a problem. It allows a league-high 5.6 yards per carry, which got worse after they allowed 192 yards in Monday night’s win over the Bills.
Even worse, the Broncos had a negative EPA against the Packers (-11.33) and barely made it into the black (0.44) in the win over Buffalo.
The offense is failing to do its part, so the Broncos still look like a mediocre football team that is still in playoff contention. That’s how teams get stuck in the middle, which is the purgatory the Vikings have been in for quite some time.
You could look at Denver’s start and see many of the same issues for the Vikings. Minnesota began with a bad home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Philadelphia Eagles gashed them on the ground for 259 rushing yards in a Week 2. Another bad loss to the Los Angeles Chargers followed before the Vikings got their first win of the season in Carolina.
A loss to the Chiefs dropped the Vikings to 1-4. Even a win at Soldier Field didn’t seem like a launching pad for a playoff run. But the Vikings came back and beat the San Francisco 49ers the following week before rattling off wins against the Packers, Atlanta Falcons, and New Orleans Saints to climb back into contention.
That sounds a lot like the Broncos over their three-game winning streak. However, the difference is that the Vikings actually seem to be getting better.
After starting the season with four-straight games with a single-digit EPA on offense, the Vikings have rattled off an EPA over 10 in four of their past six games and three of their last four. The defense has also come around. They have a positive EPA in four of their previous five games and 11 takeaways during the five-game winning streak.
That has all happened without Kirk Cousins, who suffered a torn Achilles in the win over the Packers on Oct. 29. They’ve also been missing Justin Jefferson, who is close to returning from a hamstring injury suffered against the Chiefs on Oct. 8.
Minnesota truly feels on the rise compared to a Broncos team doing a cosplay of the 2020 Vikings. Denver is in the scenario many feared when the Vikings were 1-4. However, O’Connell and his coaching staff have done their best to buck the trend and look like a team ready to make noise in the season’s home stretch.