MINNEAPOLIS — A victory seemed inevitable. For as many mistakes as the Minnesota Vikings had made, and for as middling as they had played, two minutes remained in Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that seemed like enough.
Vikings players believed they’d find a way. Maybe, as safety Harrison Smith hoped, they’d snag an interception. Or maybe, as head coach Kevin O’Connell expected, Minnesota would stop the Tampa Bay offense and get a crack at a go-ahead score themselves.
Instead, on a third-and-10, Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield placed a ball perfectly into the outstretched hands of Chris Godwin on the right sideline, sealing the game and ending the Vikings’ hopes of a Week 1 comeback. Tampa Bay prevailed 20-17.
— NFL (@NFL) September 10, 2023
“Even if we got it back on our own 1-yard line,” O’Connell said, “the expectation was that we were going to go down and try to win the game.”
Turning that expectation into reality was the story of Minnesota’s 2022 season. Last year’s Vikings finished an astonishing 11-0 in one-score games, an NFL record. Several of their wins were so improbable that by the conclusion of the 36-point second-half barrage against the Indianapolis Colts, all you could do was shrug.
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The NFL thrives on parity. Success versus failure is a razor’s edge, and when you live on the right side of things, it can feel like catching the smoothest patch of snow down a ski slope. For example, last year, quarterback Kirk Cousins talked constantly about the ease with which he could handle bad personal performances simply because the team had come through and won.
This season is already much different. The Vikings are not only 0-1, but they’re also entering a short week during which they will travel to Philadelphia to play the 1-0 Eagles in a nationally televised game. This year’s ski slope is already filled with treachery and obstacles. This is a challenge.
Overcoming it will require a special concoction made up of many ingredients. Among them are a few key facets to their 2022 success: turnovers, special teams production and red zone success.
Years ago, a study was published that showed NFL teams with a positive turnover margin win 70 percent of the time. Not only did the Vikings fail to win the turnover battle Sunday, but they also coughed the ball up three times. Tampa Bay did not turn the ball over once.
Thirty-eight times last season, a team lost a game’s turnover margin by three or more, according to TruMedia. Only one of those 38 teams won the game. Last year’s Vikings tallied an even or positive turnover margin in nine of their 11 one-score victories in 2022. This is significant.
Fixing Sunday’s turnover issues will require a dissection of each individual play. The first fumble occurred midway through the first quarter on what had been a successful eight-play drive. Cousins received the snap from backup center Austin Schlottmann, but the ball was then dislodged from his hands. Right guard Ed Ingram, who had been trying to pull to block for a run, accidentally swiped the ball out of Cousins’ hands with his left arm.
The second fumble happened as a byproduct of a missed protection. Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield swooped in and speared Cousins, who lost control of the ball.
Finally, Cousins’ second-quarter interception came on a play on which the 35-year-old quarterback aggressively tried to fit the ball into a tight window to K.J. Osborn. The pass was a few inches behind the wide receiver and was picked off by Bucs rookie Christian Izien.
Bucs INT at the goal line!
— NFL (@NFL) September 10, 2023
So, to sum up the Week 1 turnover correctables: Eliminate a mess at the line of scrimmage, identify and block disguised pass rushers and have your accurate quarterback throw the ball accurately. All seem doable.
Special teams production and red zone success are essential areas of improvement as well. Only three times in 2022 did the Vikings produce a worse expected points added metric from its special teams unit than they racked up Sunday. Rookie Jay Ward jumped offside on a Tampa Bay field goal attempt, which gave the Bucs life and led to a touchdown. Then, later in the game, the Vikings had to burn a timeout due to an incorrect alignment on another Tampa field goal attempt. In the red zone, meanwhile, Minnesota was worse Sunday than in any game in 2022, according to TruMedia’s EPA statistic.
And yet, despite those issues, it still felt like the Vikings would find a way against an inferior team — because that’s what we’d all seen them do last season. Smith balked at this though.
“It honestly has nothing to do with last year,” he said. “It’s all about the guys in the locker room, the leadership from the top down, from (O’Connell) down. It’s too special of a group not to do something.”
What happens next will decide whether he’s right. No longer are the Vikings the chip leaders at the poker table, playing freely and firing from the hip. The pressure has been applied, and playing the Eagles on the road is no easy draw. The Los Angeles Chargers are no slouches, either, and they’ll be in Minneapolis the following week.
These Vikings know where they stand, and they know the stakes.
“We have to persevere together,” O’Connell said Sunday night.
Cousins, meanwhile, stood solemnly at the lectern for his postgame news conference. His eyes looked swollen. He looked like he’d just awoken from a nightmare. This is not a time that calls for grace or levity. If anything, it is a time that calls for fight.
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(Photo of Kevin O’Connell: David Berding / Getty Images)
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