For a moment, as Kirk Cousins’s fourth-and-18 pass drifted through the air late in the fourth quarter against the Bills last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings made sense. After inexplicably starting the season 7-1, the Little Engine That Could appeared to be course-correcting—until the impossible happened.
We’ve all seen the clip by now: Justin Jefferson leapt off one foot, contorted his body mid-jump, and with his right arm stretched behind his head snatched the ball from Bills corner Cam Lewis to convert the first down. It was the catch of the year. Hell, the catch of the century.
JUSTIN JEFFERSON ASDGJSKDNFGKSDF;K— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2022
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The most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s iconic grab? It wasn’t even the play of the game. No, that was his teammate Eric Kendricks’s scoop-and-score on a fumbled snap at the Bills’ 1-yard line, which marked the first go-ahead, non-offensive touchdown by a trailing team in the last minute of the fourth quarter since 1986. As an encore, Minnesota intercepted MVP-hopeful Josh Allen in overtime to clinch the win. The Vikings always find a way—for now.
Despite the 8-1 record, advanced stats paint Minnesota as decidedly average. Heading into Week 11, Kevin O’Connell’s squad ranks 17th in DVOA, 29th in yards allowed per game, and 16th in expected points added per play on offense, yet they’re tied with the Eagles for the league’s best record and just defeated the preseason Super Bowl favorites on their home field. Advanced stats be damned, FiveThirtyEight gives Minnesota a greater than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 41 percent chance of clinching home-field advantage and a first-round bye.
With a postseason spot all but guaranteed, it’s worth analyzing five factors—three promising, two not so promising—that will determine whether these overperforming Vikings can make serious noise in January.
Kirk Cousins, the Ultimate Game Manager
First, the good: Throughout his five-year Vikings tenure, Cousins has averaged 33 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and 4,425 yards per 17 games, and after this season his Minnesota teams will have made the playoffs twice. More good: Among active quarterbacks, Cousins ranks tied for fourth in passing touchdowns, seventh in passing yards, sixth in passer rating, and tied for seventh in wins since he joined Minnesota in 2018. Just considering counting stats, Cousins has been a top-10 QB as a Viking. The problem is, well, he’s Kirk Cousins, and Kirk Cousins isn’t a big-game guy.
In regular-season games dating back to 2015, Cousins-led teams have 16 prime-time losses, the most in football. He’s 1-2 as a starter in the playoffs, and in those games his offenses have mustered just three total touchdowns in the second half or overtime. The trend has continued in 2022: the Vikings’ lone loss this season—a 24-7 drubbing by the Eagles—is also their only prime-time game thus far.
Sure, Cousins and Co. have a sterling 7-0 record in one-score contests this season and Minnesota is tied for the league lead in fourth-quarter comebacks, but their (unsustainable) success is in spite of Cousins, not because of him. From the third quarter on this season, Cousins’s expected points added per dropback (minus-.14) ranks 32nd out of 35 qualified quarterbacks, and he’s turned the ball over six times. Plus, just two of those victories were against teams with winning records (the Bills and Dolphins), and their win over Miami came when the Dolphins were forced to start rookie seventh-rounder Skylar Thompson at quarterback. Without the defense’s heroics against Buffalo last Sunday, Minnesota’s signature win would be over a disappointing Packers team in Week 1. The chart below, which places quarterback play in context next to team winning percentage (and Cousins alongside Zach Wilson and Cooper Rush), says it all:
The Vikings don’t have a quarterback who can consistently play from behind and elevate his teammates against good teams in big moments, or sufficiently blow out inferior opponents. On the season, the Vikings’ per-game point differential is 3.89, which is solid, but not spectacular. Only five Super Bowl champions have been worse.
More often than not, it’s the defense—which has forced the second-most turnovers in football—that is winning games for Minnesota. As is, the offense may be able to win a playoff game or two depending on the matchups, but improved play from Cousins would go a long way toward making the Vikings a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
To the Rescue: An All-World Receiving Corps
Cousins is far from great, but that doesn’t mean Minnesota’s offense is hopeless. The best remedy for average quarterback play is elite playmaking receiving talent, and the Vikings have that in droves.
Third-year receiver Justin Jefferson is already one of the sport’s best and is looking like an all-timer—through 42 career games, only Odell Beckham Jr. (4,078) had more receiving yards than Jefferson has (4,076). Flanking Jefferson is old reliable Adam Thielen, who is still one of the league’s best route runners and has been a touchdown machine throughout his career. This season, Thielen ranks among the league’s top 20 wide receivers in receiving first downs and he hasn’t dropped a pass.
Add in matchup nightmare T.J. Hockenson and what star running back Dalvin Cook offers as a receiver, and you’re looking at arguably the best pass-catching group in football.
Despite ranking 13th in EPA per pass attempt this season, there’s room for the Vikings to capitalize on this talent more than they have. Minnesota’s explosive play rate (10.2 percent) is down significantly from last year (13.2 percent), and in the two games since Hockenson’s arrival, Vikings pass catchers rank 31st in yards after the catch per reception (3.5). Minnesota’s offense is becoming more vertical and less reliant on the play-action game this season than it has in years past, but Cousins simply doesn’t have the arm strength or out-of-structure creativity to reliably produce chunk plays downfield. Dialing up some quick hitters to get their biggest playmakers in space should be a priority.
Dalvin Cook and the Underutilized Run Game
The Vikings may not have the quarterback to win shoot-outs, but they certainly have a running back capable of going toe to toe with any NFC defense.
Through 10 games, Cook ranked among the top 10 at his position in yards after contact per attempt (3.7) and total scrimmage yards (873), and against the Bills ran for a career-long 81-yard touchdown. The guy still has wheels.
.@DalvinCook goes 81 YARDS!!!— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2022
: #MINvsBUF on FOX
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It hasn’t been all about Cook, though. Minnesota’s run blocking, led by Christian Darrisaw, Brian O’Neill, and Ezra Cleveland, has been tremendous, grading out as PFF’s second-best unit. Even before Cook’s big game, the Vikings ranked eighth in EPA per designed rush attempt and successful rush rate.
Likely because the Vikings have trailed at some point in eight of their nine games this season, Minnesota ranks 25th in early-down rush rate at 42 percent; to succeed in the playoffs, though, they may need to flip those statistics. The Vikings’ winning formula—given that they can’t rely on a quarterback advantage come playoff time—should be to get an early lead and then play ball-control offense through their running game. It’s an antiquated strategy, and certainly isn’t a blueprint for most teams in 2022, but Minnesota will have little room for error in the playoffs, as Cousins has proven he can’t be trusted to lead the troops in those situations.
Leaning on the strength of their run game on early downs will keep O’Connell’s offense from relying too heavily on Cousins for big plays in obvious passing situations, while opening opportunities for his bread-and-butter play-action game, which the offense has used less this season than in years past. Keeping Cook cooking on long drives should also help conserve energy for Minnesota’s defense, and particularly their secondary—the team’s weakest unit.
Underwhelming Pass Coverage
Though not dreadful, Minnesota’s pass coverage is a clear weakness for an otherwise impressive defense led by defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. PFF ranks the Vikings’ defense seventh overall, but Minnesota’s pass coverage grade is 22nd. According to TruMedia, they also rank 17th in man-coverage EPA per dropback.
Outside of 32-year-old Patrick Peterson, no Vikings cornerback has an interception this season, and on the year the unit has struggled mightily in the red zone, allowing the second-most yards per pass attempt (4.7) in the league. Cameron Dantzler has been solid when healthy, but he was just placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury and won’t return until mid-December, at the earliest. The Vikings may now have to rely on two rookies—second-rounder Andrew Booth Jr. and fourth-rounder Akayleb Evans—down the stretch of the regular season as they continue their push for the NFC’s no. 1 seed.
Even at full health, though, this secondary doesn’t match up well with playoff contenders like the Bucs and Eagles. Peterson may be able to stick with Mike Evans or A.J. Brown one-on-one, but the Vikings don’t have the bodies to account for secondary playmakers like Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, and DeVonta Smith.
Elite Pass Rush
Historically speaking, Super Bowl–winning teams have had a great disruptor along the defensive line. The Vikings have two.
According to PFF, Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter are the only pair of teammates that both rank among the league’s top 12 in pressures, and together this season they’ve totaled 15.5 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, and 26 quarterback hits. This is a menacing duo, which along with Harrison Phillips and a healthy Dalvin Tomlinson forms a dynamic defensive front capable of fitting the run and sacking quarterbacks.
Minnesota has managed the league’s sixth-best hurry rate (9.4 percent) despite blitzing less than 17 percent of the time, and they’ll need to continue generating pressure on three- and four-man rushes to help out the secondary.
The take-home lesson here? This team will almost certainly regress during the second half of the season, but there are pathways to success. The Vikings have enough talent to make up for their deficiencies to perhaps make a run in the NFC playoffs, where there’s no clear juggernaut standing between them and a trip to Glendale, Arizona. If—big if—the Vikings can improve across the board and they manage to string enough wins together to make it to Super Bowl LVII, they’ll at least have a puncher’s chance. The Little Engine That Could eventually did, after all.