Minnesota Vikings: Contenders, or Pretenders?

Coming into the season, expectations were moderate for most in Minnesota, a team that hadn’t won the North since 2017, with a new regime coming to town. Kevin O’ Connell looked to be a promising hire, coming from a McVay system that has seen great success over the last 5 years. The biggest loss of the offseason was that of longtime franchise cornerstone Anthony Barr, whom they replaced with aging pass rusher formerly of the rival Packers, Za’Darius Smith. Not to mention they failed to address a faulty offensive line, meaning Kirk Cousins would continue to be vulnerable to quick pressures from opposing fronts. Outside of these few moves, and holes left unaddressed, the roster remained much the same, in a league where if you’re not progressing, you’re already regressing. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah got off to a less than ideal start, criticizing the Quarterback of a roster he was in charge of building, telling USA TODAY in a July interview “I’ll be frank, the one asset where you get nervous about not burning it down is quarterback.” Such a statement before the season, while not totally ridiculous to say, was not something any NFL fan would expect of a General Manager to say about their own Quarterback, especially to the media. And as a cherry on top the competition within the division appeared stout, with the Packers creating a defense expected to be top 5 across the league, along with retaining back-to-back reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. To the east, Dan Campbell seemed to be building a winning culture in Detroit that would create two more difficult division games throughout the season, never a welcome thought for a Vikings team that has resided around .500 for 4 seasons now. And finally the Bears, a team that has lost significant pieces over the past couple of years, however key defensive players such as Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn, and Jaylon Johnson all remained. Promising upcomers on the other side of the ball included Justin Fields, Darnell Mooney and the tandem of David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert. Although some may have written the Bears off coming into the year, they would surely be poised to keep any game close, especially divisional matchups with the Purple People Eaters.

Revisiting preseason expectations, and comparing it to the current standings of the North, eight weeks in, one would be left to assume Aaron Rodgers had suffered a cataclysmic injury, or Adofo-Mensah had pulled off a blockbuster move to skyrocket the Vikings ceiling. However none of these would be the case, rather a reality of the Purple and Gold finally living up to expectations after years of mediocrity. As it stands, the Vikings are atop the North at 6-1, their only loss coming to the undefeated Eagles, with the Packers a not so close second at 3-5, after dropping three straight games in which they were favored by 5 or more points. The 3-4 Bears sit in third, not looking especially poised to make any type of run. Finally the Lions, the only team in football that can be praised for losing games, because they keep it close. So how did the Vikings get here? The easy answer, they score on average 23.2 points per game, while letting up an average of 19.7. However, not counting the Eagles loss, their average margin of victory is a little over a touchdown. The offense has failed to eclipse 30 points in a game, however the defense has not let up more 25, which they gave up in a London victory. Justin Jefferson has looked just as elite as promised, and Adam Thielen has continued to be the high-end complementary piece he has been since 2016. When he’s on the field, Dalvin Cook is a difference maker, forcing more of the defense’s attention onto himself, and creating opportunities for the receivers. The defense has continued to slowly trend down over the past few years, as they have allowed the 6th-most yards per game, while sitting middle of the pack in PPG allowed, at 13th.

So where does this leave us? Only 4 of their remaining 11 opponents are over .500, and barring any catastrophic injury or collapse, they should finish as NFC North Champions. It appears as though contenders of the NFC’s past such as the Packers, Buccaneers and Rams won’t be as strong this year. This leaves teams such as the Eagles, Giants, and Cowboys as the top competition come playoff time, all 3 of which they will play by the time January rolls around. We can safely say that the Vikings offense is superior to the Cowboys and Giants, however a big question mark remains when it comes to the Eagles. After a Week 2 rout, they are most definitely favored over this Vikings team, however the injury carousel could drastically shift this notion.

The Vikings are in a good spot, with room for improvement in the trenches. Although they have been relatively lucky in terms of injuries, or lack thereof, their only key hit so far has been rookie 1st-round Safety Lewis Cine hitting the IR with a gruesome compound leg fracture. For Minnesota to continue this success, Kirk Cousins will have to play mistake-free football. Currently, he is 2 interceptions short of his 2021 season total, and he is on pace to double that total. If the Vikings truly want a chance at success against elite teams, Cousins will have to improve decision making, and the run game will have to complement, and set up, the air attack.

It is sure to be an exciting winter in the Twin Cities, but if they Vikings truly wish to bring home their first Lombardi Trophy, Kevin O’Connel and Co. have some work to do.
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