The Vikings Can't Escape the NFL's Middle Class

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings were up 17-9 with 2:48 in the third quarter. They had first-and-10 on the Denver Broncos’ 34-yard line and an opportunity to put the game away with a touchdown. But D.J. Jones hit Alexander Mattison on a run up the middle, jarring the ball loose. Josey Jewell recovered it, changing the momentum of the game. Minnesota’s turnover issues had struck again.

Minnesota held the Broncos to a field goal on that drive, but they couldn’t overcome their turnover differential, losing 21-20 in Denver. Mattison’s fumble was the Vikings’ second of the night and third total turnover. Joshua Dobbs fumbled on third-and-one on Minnesota’s third play of the game, and Ja’Quan McMillian hit Dobbs on the drive after the Broncos scored to make it 17-12, forcing an interception.

Entering Week 11, teams that won the turnover battle were 86-35 (71% win rate). The Vikings are 3-0 when they win the turnover battle, 2-0 when they tie their opponent, and 1-5 when they lose it. There are myriad reasons Minnesota lost in Denver. Ryan Wright punted two balls into the end zone for touchbacks. Josh Metellus dropped an interception in the end zone at the end of the half, and Ivan Pace Jr. couldn’t corral a fumble on the Broncos’ touchdown drive. The refs missed some headhunting. Dobbs botched a few snaps. But turnovers are the chief culprit here.

Before the start of the fourth quarter, Cris Collinsworth compared the Broncos to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He probably meant it as a compliment. The Steelers’ organization is always committed to winning, and Mike Tomlin remains one of the league’s best coaches. Opponents may continue to outgain them, and Kenny Pickett doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback. Still, Pittsburgh continues to win.

Denver shares many similar traits, and so do the Vikings. Minnesota certainly did last year when they won 11 one-score games. But that magic eventually wears off. The New York Giants upset them in the playoffs last year, and the Giants are 3-8 this season. No coach’s stock has dropped like Brian Daboll’s, and Daniel Jones might be the most overpaid quarterback in the league. After losing to the Broncos on Sunday, the Vikings have five one-score losses – tied for most in the league with the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers, and New England Patriots.

That’s not the kind of company you want to keep.

The Vikings have transformed since Week 1. Dobbs has taken over for Kirk Cousins after his Achilles injury. Dalton Risner has bolstered the offensive line, and Cam Akers was their most dynamic running back. Anthony Barr has returned! But turnovers continue to prevent them from reaching their potential. They lost the turnover battle to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Chargers and started 0-3.

As impressive as the Vikings were during their five-game winning streak, the San Francisco 49ers were the only good team they beat. The Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Atlanta Falcons have losing records, and the New Orleans Saints are .500. That’s not to take away from how impressive Dobbs was in Atlanta or how they’ve reconstructed their roster in the middle of the season. But Minnesota is in the middle of a winnable stretch of games and has to take advantage. Therefore, it’s essential to keep that winning streak in perspective.

Monday night’s game against Chicago and the road games against the Las Vegas Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals following the bye concludes the winnable stretch of their schedule. They have to pick up W’s in their next three games to have a chance to earn a favorable playoff matchup. During the broadcast, Mike Tirico highlighted that the Vikings are playing the Detroit Lions in Weeks 16 and 18. Had Minnesota and Detroit won out entering their Week 16 matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings would have an opportunity to take the division and get home-field advantage in the playoffs. They still do if they don’t spiral after the loss in Denver.

The Vikings still can defend their NFC North title, but that becomes more difficult if they don’t take care of business in their next three games. Suppose Minnesota beats Chicago on Monday night, wins in Vegas, and beats the Joe Burrow-less Bengals. Then we’ll probably forget about Sunday’s loss in Denver at the end of the season. If anything, the win over San Francisco bought them some leeway to drop a game to the suddenly hot Broncos.

However, as it stands right now, the Vikings are 6-5 and stuck in the NFL’s middle class. Dobbsmania has been fun, and they’re in a better place than they were when they were 1-4 heading into Chicago. But they leave Denver hovering around .500 instead of building momentum heading into three winnable games. Turnovers killed them when Cousins was under center at the beginning of the season, and it continues to hurt them now. Whether or not they take care of the ball will determine how far they will go this year.

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