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Moller: Are the Vikings poised to break their playoff woes?

As we approach the midway point of the season, the Minnesota Vikings have proven to be arguably the most surprising team in the NFL this season. With a 6-1 record, the Vikings have consistently found ways to win in close games, and they have thrust themselves into the Super Bowl conversation.

Coming into the season, many expected the Vikings to have a rebuilding year under first year head coach Kevin O’Connell. It has been anything but a rebuilding season in Minnesota so far, as the excitement surrounding this Vikings team continues to grow.

Although the Vikings finished with a losing record last season, eight of last season’s losses were decided by one score. So far this season, the Vikings have flipped the script with five of their six wins coming by one score. This difference comes down to the head coaching change. Last season with Mike Zimmer as head coach, the Vikings’ offense constantly faltered in late game situations. With this year’s O’Connell-led offense, quarterback Kirk Cousins has looked much more comfortable, and the offense has been able to close out games late and find ways to win.

Despite being a first year head coach, O’Connell and Cousins worked together before during Cousins’ time in Washington. As Cousins’ quarterback coach, O’Connell helped Cousins assert himself as a starter in the NFL, and since taking over for the Vikings, O’Connell has continued to propel Cousins’ game to the next level. I expect O’Connell to continue to improve Cousins’ game throughout the season and play to his strengths.

Despite his improvements this season, Cousins is by no means a top-tier NFL quarterback. He has, however, shown that he can use his weapons at wide receiver effectively to put up points. Cousins is pretty much middle of the road in all major stats, but having wide receiver Justin Jefferson as an option has opened up the big play for the Vikings this season. The third-year wide receiver has improved each year, and O’Connell’s schemes have been very successful in opening up receiving lanes for the young receiver.

In addition to Jefferson, the Vikings also possess veteran Adam Thielen, who has been a favorite of Cousins since his arrival in Minnesota. Although Thielen hasn’t been putting up the same stat lines of year’s past, he is still a serious red zone threat, and the chemistry between Cousins and Thielen is as strong as ever. The Vikings also have K.J. Osborn as their third receiver, and he has had plenty of clutch catches this year as well. 

The talent at running back is another one of Minnesota’s strengths. While Dalvin Cook continues to lead the backfield, Alexander Mattison is arguably one of the most talented backup running backs in the league. The duo has averaged nearly 100 rushing yards a game this season, and they have been the perfect complement to an explosive Vikings’ passing attack. 

Arguably the biggest concern for the Vikings coming into this season was the defense, most notably in the secondary. The current Vikings’ depth chart features Cameron Dantzler and Patrick Peterson starting at cornerback and Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum at safety. Although Peterson and Smith are both formidable veterans at their positions, Peterson is long removed from his Pro-Bowl seasons and Smith is now 33 years of age. The two veterans are complemented by two young players in Dantzler and Bynum, who are continuing to build confidence as the season progresses. Andrew Booth Jr., who was drafted in the second round of this year’s draft, has also seen some playing time at cornerback.

Despite the mix of veterans and young players, the secondary has not been firing on all cylinders, as the Vikings currently rank in the bottom ten in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Injuries have been problematic for the Vikings as well, and the loss of rookie cornerback and 2022 first round pick Lewis Cine was a massive blow to an already thin Vikings’ secondary. 

One area that the Vikings have improved defensively this season has been in the pass rush and run defense. This season, the Vikings are allowing an average of 4.2 yards per carry, compared to last year’s 4.7 yards per carry. Additionally, the Vikings are averaging a respectable 3 sacks per game. This success among the front seven is in large part due to the addition of veteran Za’Darius Smith, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks this season. 

So, with all that being said, are the Vikings truly a Super Bowl contender? While the Vikings look like they might have the pieces this year, it is going to be tough for them to navigate the rest of the regular season and potentially the playoffs. Time after time when the Vikings have had an exciting team, the team has ultimately faltered in the playoffs.

Since losing in the Super Bowl four times between 1969 and 1977, the Vikings have gone 0-6 in conference championships. For whatever reason, the Vikings seemed to be cursed in the playoffs. In many of those conference championships, the Vikings have been so close, but ultimately they have been unable to get the job done. Whether it was a fluke missed field goal or the Saints’ infamous “Bountygate” incident, there has always seemed to be something to prevent the Vikings from finding success.

The biggest concern, however, might be Kirk Cousins’ performance in primetime. Cousins is known for his struggles on the big stage, and that was already apparent this year in the Vikings’ 24-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in week two this season. In that loss, Cousins threw three interceptions and finished with a horrendous 24.8 QBR. Considering the Vikings will very likely have to go through Philadelphia if they are to reach the Super Bowl, Cousins’ performance in that game is very concerning.

The Vikings undoubtedly have a very good football team this season, and I fully expect them to make the playoffs. With that being said, I am keeping my expectations in check for this Vikings’ team. The Vikings are arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL when it comes to choking in the playoffs, and it’s tough to imagine the Vikings breaking their curse this season.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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