Even with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in possession of the ball up 20-17 at the two-minute warning, it felt like the Minnesota Vikings would escape with a Week 1 win. They had the entire 2022 season, except for against the New York Giants in the playoffs. But Justin Jefferson had that miracle catch in Buffalo. The Vikings rallied from down 33 against the Indianapolis Colts and snuck out of DC with a win over the Washington Commanders.
Why would Week 1 of the 2023 season be any different?
After the two-minute warning, Baker Mayfield took the third-and-ten snap and found Chris Godwin open, who reeled in a finger-tip catch for first down. Mayfield kneeled three times, and the Vikings lost their first one-score game of the 2023 season. They had an opportunity to avenge their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but they lost in the City of Brotherly Love again. Then Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers torched them, sending Minnesota to 0-3 to start the season.
Turnovers were the primary culprit in Minnesota’s slow start. They turned it over three times against Tampa, four in Philadelphia, and twice to the Chargers. It was a common theme all season, regardless of whether Jefferson or Kirk Cousins played. The Vikings were 4-o when they won the turnover battle, 2-0 when they tied, and 1-10 when they lost it. Their lone win when they lost the turnover battle came against the Carolina Panthers, who finished 2-15.
Imagine if the Vikings had taken care of the ball early in the season, though. What if they had gotten off to a better start? Say Mayfield’s pass slips through Godwin’s fingers, and Minnesota marches down the field to tie it, then win in overtime. They still probably lose in Philadelphia, given that the Eagles started 10-1 and have a home-field advantage. But what if they bounced back and beat Brandon Staley’s Chargers, who finished 5-12 and won in Charlotte? Then that Week 5 Kansas City Chiefs game becomes pretty interesting.
Jefferson injured his hamstring on a routine cut as the Vikings tried to mount a comeback against Kansas City. The injury forced Jefferson to watch the rest of the game from the sideline, uncertain when he could rejoin the team.
Hamstring injuries tend to linger, and players who press themselves back into action too early can limit their explosiveness and shorten their careers. Jefferson is vital to Minnesota’s long-term success, and he entered the season without a contract extension. He wasn’t going to, and shouldn’t, force his way back onto the field. His injury was the second sign things wouldn’t go the Vikings’ way this season.
But the Vikings soldiered on and won in Chicago, then beat the San Francisco 49ers as seven-point underdogs on Monday Night Football to salvage their season temporarily. Kirk Cousins’ season-ending Achilles injury at Lambeau appeared to put a damper on Minnesota’s sudden momentum. But the Vikings traded for Joshua Dobbs at the deadline, and the Passtronaut kept the win streak going with wins over the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
The Vikings lost in Denver and to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. But they squeezed out a victory in Vegas before losing their last four games and finishing 7-10. Minnesota’s offense sputtered after Sean Payton and the Denver Broncos grounded Dobbs, and opposing offensive coordinators began to figure out Brian Flores’ defense in the final four games. But turnovers still told the story of their season.
Ultimately, the Vikings were only going to go so far without Jefferson and Cousins. There was no way they would come back and beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs without Jefferson. But they found a way to knock off the Niners sans Jefferson, and they won in Sin City – albeit in the most painful game to watch of the year.
Imagine what we would have been saying if they were 3-1 when Jefferson pulled up limp against Kansas City. What if they had snuck out of Denver with a win over a team that had started 0-3 and beaten the Bears on Monday Night Football? They would have been 11-2 entering their game in Cincinnati.
Let’s say they lose in Cincinnati, where the Vikings haven’t won since 1991. Then, the Detroit Lions, who reached the NFC Championship, beat them twice. So do the Green Bay Packers, who significantly improved by the end of the season. That’s a difficult way to end the season. But it would also make sense. For some reason, Minnesota can’t win in Cincy, and it’s hard to beat the surging Lions and Packers with a backup quarterback.
It’s only so much solace, but an 11-6 season where the Vikings grind out wins all year, only to falter late, feels very Vikings. It would have been better than finishing 7-10. In an optimal season, Jefferson and Cousins stay healthy, and Minnesota builds off last year’s 13-win season. The second-best outcome would have been losing to San Francisco, bottoming out, and grabbing a franchise quarterback in the draft.
But suppose the Vikings had lost to the Chiefs in the game Jefferson got hurt, beaten the Niners without him, and won in Vegas. Then it would be easy for everyone to suggest that this year’s team was thisclose to contending. It’s harder to say that after a seven-win season. Maybe that’s for the better, though. Regardless of what happens in the draft and free agency, Minnesota must take care of the ball to win next year. More than anything else, turnovers are why they had a disappointing season this year.