NFL

Minnesota Vikings 2023 NFL Season Preview and Picks

By Scott Kacsmar

The Minnesota Vikings took the most unique path to a 13-4 record last season under rookie coach Kevin O’Connell. After years of being stuck in .500 purgatory, the Vikings used an NFL record-tying 8 fourth-quarter comebacks to win the NFC North, but it was only enough to get a No. 3 seed and be matched up with a team well designed to beat them in the Giants.

But after losing a wild card game at home, the Vikings are this year’s huge regression red flag team after they were outscored by 3 points last year – the only team in NFL history to win more than 11 games with a negative scoring differential.

Will the Vikings avoid harsh regression in close games in 2023, or will O’Connell improve the team enough that they avoid so many close finishes? The Detroit Lions have been favored to win the NFC North all offseason, but we know the Lions are not used to being favorites of anything positive. The Vikings have an over/under of 8.5 wins, which could be a bargain in retrospect.

We look back at a 2022 season that was one of the wildest in NFL history, the key offseason changes, the expectations of close-game regression, and what the best Vikings bets are for 2023.

2022 Season Recap: The Unexpected Legend of Captain Comeback Kirk Cousins

No matter what you think of the 2022 Vikings, they made history and had some of the wildest finishes to games in NFL history. There was not a lot of hype for Kevin O’Connell’s team last year, but in coming over from the Rams and a Super Bowl win as offensive coordinator, he did at least have a reasonable formula for recreating that magic he had with Matthew Stafford in 2021.

Stafford had never won a playoff game before that season, so even Kirk Cousins had already done that once before 2022. If the Vikings could move wide receiver Justin Jefferson around more a la Cooper Kupp, then maybe the Vikings could pull off a miraculous season and end up in a Super Bowl as the NFC’s latest flash in the pan team.

Well, some of that worked. Jefferson immediately put the league on notice with 184 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 1 win over Green Bay. That was his career high in yardage, which he would surpass two more times during the season on his way to leading the NFL in catches (128) and receiving yards (1,809). Jefferson finished No. 5 in the MVP vote with 55 points, the most for any non-quarterback.

But after that complete team win (23-7) over Green Bay to start the season, the Vikings imploded, 24-7, in Philadelphia on a Monday night in Week 2, bringing back bad memories of how Cousins usually loses on Monday night games.

Those two lopsided finishes to begin the year were a mirage as the close games started in Week 3, leading to a 7-game winning streak where the Vikings won every game by one possession:

  • Against Detroit, the Vikings erased a 24-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 28-24 after a go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minute.
  • The team then went to London to face the Saints and came out on top in a back-and-forth final quarter in a 28-25 win as the Saints missed a 61-yard field goal in the final seconds.
  • The Vikings blew a 21-3 lead to the lowly Bears and Justin Fields, only to recover in time for a 29-22 win after the Bears fumbled a completed pass on the final drive.
  • Getting to play the Dolphins without Tua Tagovailoa, the Vikings still allowed 418 passing yards to backups Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson, but they still won 24-16.
  • Despite missing an extra point that would have given the Vikings a 2-score lead in the fourth quarter, the Vikings held on for a 34-26 win over Arizona.
  • Down 17-7 in the fourth quarter, Cousins rallied the team against his former team for a 20-17 win after an unnecessary roughness penalty on Washington on a field goal bled the clock down to 12 seconds instead of leaving the Commanders more time to answer.
  • In the craziest finish of them all in Buffalo, despite trailing 27-10 in the third quarter, the Vikings fought back, Jefferson made an insane catch on fourth-and-18, but the Vikings were still stopped on the 1-yard line on that drive. Thinking the game was over, the Bills just needed to take two knees to win, but Josh Allen fumbled the snap and the Vikings recovered for the most shocking fumble touchdown in the NFL since the Miracle at the Meadowlands in 1978. The Vikings later intercepted Allen in overtime and won 33-30 in an instant classic.

Just like that, the 2022 Vikings were 8-1 and joined the 1996 Jaguars and 2020 Chiefs as the only teams in NFL history to win 7 straight games by 1-to-8 points.

But the visceral reaction to this team after the improbable Buffalo win was about to get an assist from Dallas to show us that something was still not right about these Vikings despite the 8-1 record. In a big NFC showdown, the Cowboys destroyed the Vikings in Minnesota by a 40-3 final. Dak Prescott was 22-of-25 passing with running back Tony Pollard shining as a receiver on two touchdown catches and 109 receiving yards.

Just days later on Thanksgiving, the Vikings were in the spotlight again facing the Patriots in a prime-time game. Despite allowing Mac Jones to pass for a career-high 382 yards, the Vikings came back again in the fourth quarter for a 33-26 win.

Moving into December, the Vikings never trailed in a 27-22 win over the Jets, but the accusations of being a lucky team strengthened when Braxton Berrios dropped a touchdown on fourth-and-goal in the end zone with 1:43 left.

The Vikings fell to 10-3 when they lost 34-23 in Detroit in a game where they could never get it close enough in the fourth quarter. But the record-setting game would come a week later on a Saturday in Week 15 when the Vikings hosted interim coach Jeff Saturday and the Colts. The Vikings looked awful in trailing 33-0 at halftime, but there were fixable mistakes as the Colts scored on a blocked punt return touchdown and a pick-six. The Colts were not moving the ball that great.

In the second half, the Vikings pulled off the largest comeback in NFL history at 33 points, beating out the 1992 Bills’ 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers. The Vikings scored four unanswered touchdowns at one point, but they did not tie the game until the defense saved the day by stopping Matt Ryan on a fourth down quarterback sneak, which usually works over 80% of the time. Had the Colts converted that yard, the game would have been over. Instead, Cousins only needed one play to throw a 64-yard touchdown to Dalvin Cook, and the game was tied after a 2-point conversion pass to T.J. Hockenson.

The Vikings went on to win in overtime after a 40-yard field goal was good. A week later, the Vikings survived another back-and-forth final quarter against the Giants in a 27-24 win, their record-tying 8th fourth-quarter comeback win of the season. The 2016 Lions are the only other team in NFL history to do that. Cousins’ 8th game-winning drive of the season ties the single-season record held by Stafford on that 2016 Detroit team.

Just as the Vikings began the season with two lopsided games, they ended the regular season that way too, losing 41-17 to the Packers and beating up the Bears 29-13 in Week 18 to finish 13-4.

But that close game with the Giants showed New York it had a lot of potential in this matchup with Daniel Jones able to throw for 300 yards in both games against a secondary that was shredded all year. Jones also used his legs often in that playoff game, and he put the Giants ahead 31-24 in the fourth quarter.

Cousins had nearly a full three minutes to answer with a touchdown, but on a fourth-and-8 at midfield, he quickly fired a short throw to Hockenson that only gained 3 yards and had no shot of picking up the first down. The game was over, and the incredible, exciting, improbable season for Minnesota was over after one wild card loss.

Between the record-tying number of comeback wins and game-winning drives, the record-setting 33-point comeback win, and the unbelievable finish in Buffalo, the 2022 Vikings were a historic, memorable team.

But they will not go down as an all-time great team.

Offseason Review

We get into the regression concerns in the next section, but first, let’s look at what has changed in Minnesota this offseason. Unfortunately, the moves do not point towards a team that will be improved in 2023.

First, the Vikings have said goodbye to a handful of Pro Bowl veterans:

  • WR Adam Thielen, relegated to a No. 2 receiver role, is in Carolina after spending his whole career in Minnesota.
  • RB Dalvin Cook, the team’s leading rusher, was released in June and will not return to the team.
  • LB Eric Kendricks, the team’s leading tackler, is gone after spending all 8 seasons of his career in Minnesota.
  • EDGE Za’Darius Smith is out after one season where he put up 10 sacks.
  • CB Patrick Peterson has moved on to Pittsburgh after tying for the team lead with 5 interceptions last year.

These players may not have been young and in their prime, but it is hard to just gut that much experience. The Vikings did not make splashy signings in free agency to replace these players. They are going to rely on Alexander Mattison to replace Cook. Mattison has had some solid games in his career, though his top 6 rushing performances are all against the Lions (4) and Seahawks (2), so he will have to prove he can do it consistently for a full season.

The most exciting addition to combat these losses was using a first-round pick on USC wide receiver Jordan Addison, who will hope to become the No. 2 behind Justin Jefferson unless he gets caught speeding again. Addison was reportedly driving 140 miles per hour this offseason and blamed his dog having a crisis at home for his late-night speeding. Hopefully this will be an isolated incident and the Vikings did not draft a reckless person.

But the receiving corps is still largely relying on Jefferson to be great. The Vikings were 10-1 when Jefferson had at least 98 yards last year, but they were 3-4 in the 7 games where he failed to crack 50 yards. It would be nice if he had a more consistent season too, spreading the wealth better than having 14 yards one week and 147 the next.

Defense is still where the Vikings need the most help. They tried to improve the pass rush by bringing in Marcus Davenport from the Saints to play edge rusher, but the 2018 first-round pick is a downgrade from Za’Darius Smith. Davenport has 21.5 career sacks and 9 of those came in 2021.

Five of the six most targeted defenders in the passing game have left the team. Going into another season with safety Camryn Bynum, who allowed 8 touchdowns in 2022, next to Harrison Smith does not sound very appealing. Akayleb Evan, a fourth-round pick in 2022, also had a brutal rookie season and is projected to start this year. The Vikings could also be starting third-round rookie Mekhi Blackmon at corner in Week 1.

The Vikings did replace defensive coordinator Ed Donatell with Brian Flores, who has a lot of respect around the league. But if Flores brings the Bill Belichick influence of bend-but-don’t-break defense to Minnesota, he may be surprised just how often this unit breaks since it lacks the stud players you need to run that.

Talent wise, you could argue the defense is worse, and the offense may be worse too unless Addison is a godsend on the level of how well Jefferson played as a rookie in 2020.

This Year’s Area of Interest: Close-Game Regression

Here are the last two seasons for the Vikings:

  • 2021 Vikings: 425 points scored, 426 points allowed, 8-9 record
  • 2022 Vikings: 424 points scored, 427 points allowed, 13-4 record

The scoring is practically identical, so how did this produce a 5-win improvement? The answer is as simple as distribution and success in close games. The 2022 Vikings were great at winning close games and getting blown out in losses. Consider this context for fourth-quarter comebacks (4QC) and game-winning drives (GWD), which are games where the offense had the ball in the fourth quarter overtime with a one-score deficit or tied score:

  • 2021 Vikings: 3-7 at 4QCs, 4-7 at GWDs, 4 blown leads, 5-7 in close games
  • 2022 Vikings: 8-0 at 4QCs, 8-0 at GWDs, 0 blown leads, 11-0 in close games

The Vikings were the only team to not blow a 4Q/OT lead last season. These numbers do not include the playoffs. But the playoffs were the first time all season the Vikings had the ball in the fourth quarter of a one-score game and did not win.

The playoff loss ended unbelievable streaks in close games for O’Connell. Going back to his Super Bowl run with the Rams, O’Connell had streaks of 14-0 in close games, 11-0 at game-winning drives, and 10-0 at fourth-quarter comebacks. Insane stuff.

Naturally, this is expected to regress to the mean in 2023, because it is practically impossible to keep winning close games at this rate in the NFL.

The 2016 Lions were the only other team to have 8 fourth-quarter comeback wins in a season. They finished with the same 9-7 record in 2017 too, but that time it was not good enough for the playoffs. They also finished just 1-5 in 4QC opportunities, and that is where the “clutch teams” tend to do their biggest regression the next year. Those close wins they had the previous year tend to not break the same way the next year.

It makes sense as you just cannot count on a team to fumble at their 1-yard line for a fumble recovery touchdown in the final 50 seconds of a game that should be over. You cannot count on a 33-point comeback ever again, which likely never happens if the Colts had a coach who was not just a media analyst months ago.

Does regression mean the Vikings will finish 5-12 in 2023? No, but they certainly are not going to be 13-4 again. In fact, the last 9 teams to make the playoffs with a negative scoring differential all failed to return to the playoffs the next year.

Cousins is the 27th quarterback to have at least 6 game-winning drives (GWD) in a regular season in NFL history. So far, 13 of those teams returned to the playoffs the next year and 13 did not. On the plus side, 18-of-26 teams (69.2%) won at least 9 games the next season.

Cousins is also the main reason why the Vikings are likely to regress to the same .500 (give or take a game) team they always are. Prior to last season, Cousins was 12-36-2 (.260) at 4QC opportunities, a below-average rate. But he was 8-1 in 2022 when you include the playoff loss.

Feel free to trust him over Justin Fields, Jordan Love, and Jared Goff, but you basically have to be 2008-09 Peyton Manning to repeat this type of success in close games in back-to-back years.

The other peculiar thing about the 2022 Vikings is that it was not even a top Cousins season by any means. In fact, you could argue it was his worst season from an efficiency standpoint. Look at where his 2022 ranks among his last 8 seasons as a full-time starter in Washington and Minnesota:

  • 65.9% completions (2nd worst)
  • 4.5% touchdown rate (2nd worst)
  • 14 interceptions (career high)
  • 2.2% interception rate (3rd worst)
  • 7.1 yards per attempt (worst)
  • 6.7% sack rate (3rd worst)
  • 6.05 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (worst)
  • 92.5 passer rating (worst)
  • 49.9 QBR (worst)

Remember, the Vikings had to be trailing in the fourth quarter to obtain so many comeback wins. The offense had Jefferson’s great numbers, but as a unit, the offense was only No. 16 in yards per drive and No. 12 in points per drive.

The 2023 Vikings could very well get better on offense, Cousins could play better, and yet they are almost guaranteed to win fewer games and may not even make the playoffs because of close-game regression.

Best Bets for the 2023 Vikings

Before last season, Cousins had been a full-time starter for 7 seasons, and all but one of those seasons saw him within a game of 8 wins. The Vikings are the easiest pick in the league for a team to have a worse record than they did in 2022, but it would not be wise to predict a full collapse.

The schedule is still favorable enough for this team to tow that line of 8.5 wins. But the division title is likely to come down to the last three weeks when the Vikings will face Detroit twice and a rematch with Green Bay.

Say what you will about Cousins, but his consistency and accuracy are welcome traits in an NFC filled with unreliable and unknown passers. Giving him a dominant receiver and what appears to at least be competent coaching from O’Connell and Flores should keep the team in contention.

We may have overdone the regression point so much for the Vikings this offseason that they could even surprise and win another division title. The Lions, Bears, and Packers (without Aaron Rodgers) are just that untrustworthy. But that is why over 8.5 wins is our best bet for the Vikings, and in an unproven NFC, 9-8 can absolutely be worth another playoff spot.

But do check in on their record in close games because it is guaranteed to get worse this season.

NFL Pick: Minnesota Vikings over 8.5 wins (-128 at FanDuel)

NFL Pick: Minnesota Vikings to make playoffs (-106 at FanDuel)

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