From @jzulgad: Despite the 4-1 record, the Vikings acknowledge that there is still room for improvement
The first cheers at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday happened before the Vikings’ noon kickoff against the Chicago Bears. The giant scoreboard screens at both ends of the stadium were tuned to the end of the New York Giants’ come-from-behind victory over Green Bay in London. The loss dropped the Packers to 3-2 and presented the Vikings with an opportunity to take a one-game lead, two if tie-breakers are included, on their archrival.
The Vikings looked like they would easily do that as Kirk Cousins set a franchise record by completing his first 17 passes for 176 yards, Justin Jefferson caught 10 passes for 138 yards in the first half and the Vikings took an 18-point lead before the Bears trimmed it to 21-10 at halftime.
Nonetheless, it appeared the Vikings would have their first comfortable win since a 23-7 victory over the Packers in Week 1. But that didn’t come close to being the case as the Bears rallied to take a one-point lead with 9 minutes, 26 seconds left in the fourth quarter and left the Vikings faithful in U.S. Bank Stadium eerily quiet.
The good news, at least for the Vikings, was they responded with a 17-play, 75-yard drive that took 7 minutes and ended with Kirk Cousins’ 1-yard touchdown keeper to give the Vikings a 29-22 victory, a 4-1 record and a perfect 3-0 mark against the NFC North.
The disturbing thing was that the Vikings could and should have made this so much easier. Two weeks ago, against the Lions at home, the Vikings trailed by 10 points after three quarters before rallying with 14 points in the fourth for a 28-24 victory. Last week, the Vikings led the Saints, 16-7, in the second half in London, but fell behind in the fourth quarter before rallying to win on Greg Joseph’s 47-yard field goal with 24 seconds remaining.
In both cases Cousins led the winning drives, and he did the same again Sunday. This time Cousins completed 6-of-8 passes for 57 yards and also connected with Jefferson on a two-point conversion pass to push the lead to seven points with 2:29 left.
It’s a good thing first-year coach Kevin O’Connell is only 37, or there might be some concern about how much of this his heart can take.
The Vikings’ start puts them in excellent position to take control of the NFC North, and their odds of going to 5-1 next Sunday in Miami appear favorable with the Dolphins potentially having to start rookie seventh-round quarterback Skylar Thompson. Starter Tua Tagovailoa and backup Teddy Bridgewater are both injured, with Bridgewater being lost in a 40-17 loss Sunday to the Jets.
So what’s wrong with the Vikings, or what’s holding them back from making games a bit less dramatic?
The defense has too often been a weak spot, special teams struggled on Sunday (Greg Joseph missed one field goal and had another blocked) and Cousins threw a fourth-quarter interception that led to the Cairo Santos’ 51-yard field goal giving the Bears the lead.
O’Connell comes across as a perennially positive guy, but if he’s afraid his team is getting too cocky, there is no shortage of miscues he can show them so they know how far they have to go before truly being considered among the NFL’s elite.
O’Connell chose his words carefully after Sunday’s game when asked about being in first place and whether it means anything special.
“No, it really doesn’t. I just think it just means that we’re 4-1 after five games,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot about our team through five games, but I think what we’ve learned should really help us do two things in my mind: Have confidence moving forward that we can win football games that are hard-fought and competitive in this league, but ultimately that we can still continue to chase consistency across the board playing our philosophical way that we think we can win a lot of football games with.”
It’s the consistency part on which the Vikings need work. The NFL is filled with mediocre teams that play close games — the league sells this as parity — but when a team like the Vikings jumps in front of a bottom-feeder like the Bears, they need to deliver a knockout punch, not an invitation to stick around.
“We need to play better for four quarters,” said Cousins, who finished 32-of-41 for 296 yards with a touchdown and interception but only completed two passes to Jefferson in the second half. “We need to play better through the stretch of the game so that we can pull away and not live in these games in the last two minutes. So that will be the challenge moving forward. If we were to get out ahead of someday. How can we just pull away and not linger?”
Whether the Vikings will be good enough to find that gear this season is the real question. O’Connell is still trying to figure out things. Of course, with the NFC having so few dominant teams, there is going to be an urgency for O’Connell to fix his team’s flaws and do more than qualify for the playoffs.
O’Connell undoubtedly had started work on finding those solutions Sunday night as his players celebrated their latest victory. His satisfaction with the Vikings’ start only outweighed by the knowledge that his team isn’t close to hitting on all cylinders.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com