The Vikings reached their bye week at 3-3, a record that at first glance seems bland.
The way they've arrived at that mark is anything but.
Their first six games have been a rollicking start, full of blown leads and late-game comebacks, untimely turnovers and heroic moments, and enough last-second field goals to take Greg Joseph on several journeys from hero to goat and back again. Their easiest win — a 30-17 victory in their Sept. 26 home opener — came over the Seattle Seahawks, an opponent they hadn't defeated in 12 years.
"The first six games, I guess the best way to put it is 'exciting,' " General Manager Rick Spielman said.
Had a few plays gone differently, the Vikings could be 5-1, tied with the Packers atop the NFC North. Or, they could be 1-5 at the bye for the second straight year, asking big questions about what their future will look like. Instead, they entered Sunday in a three-way tie for the NFC's final playoff spot with a team they beat in overtime last Sunday (the Panthers) and a team they will play twice in the season's final four weeks (the Bears). Carolina and Chicago both dropped to 3-4 with losses Sunday.
"I mean, could we better? Yeah. Could we be worse? Yeah," coach Mike Zimmer said. "We are where we are. But I like the resiliency of this team. They fight."
As the Vikings prepare for 11 games that will determine the outcome of their season — and perhaps the course of the organization — here is a look at five story lines to watch after the bye:
Peterson's injury makes secondary a primary concern
Though veteran Patrick Peterson has had some difficult moments, he's been the Vikings' best cover corner through the first six games. They will have to face at least the next three opponents (the Cowboys, Ravens and Chargers) without him after he was placed on injured reserve with a right hamstring injury last week. That puts Cameron Dantzler — who started as a rookie but slipped down the depth chart in Year 2 — back in the lineup, and the Vikings will be counting on improved play from him and Bashaud Breeland to keep their playoff hopes in good shape. They could also look for cornerback help near the Nov. 2 trade deadline, though they have only $3.1 million under the cap and would likely prefer to carry over as much cap space as possible into 2022.
Can Cousins keep it up?
Through his last 16 games, quarterback Kirk Cousins has completed 69.3% of his passes for 4,559 yards, 37 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's put the Vikings in position to tie or win with last-minute drives in six of their last 12 games, including four this season. He remains part of an offense that has kept things conservative until the game's final minutes, though the Vikings might need to open things up as they try to match offenses directed by Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert while Peterson is out. If Cousins continues to keep the turnovers to a minimum and get good protection from his offensive line, the Vikings can survive a nasty second-half schedule. A strong season could also bring the Vikings back to the negotiating table with their quarterback, who carries a $45 million cap hit in 2022.
Offensive line overhaul in process
First-round pick Christian Darrisaw started at left tackle for the first time last week and the only pressure he allowed in 89 snaps was to Brian Burns in the final minute of regulation. Darrisaw's strong debut, coupled with the fact Rashod Hill injured his knee on a first-quarter field goal, likely means the rookie isn't giving the job back. That could mean the Vikings are set with five draft picks on their offensive line for the foreseeable future, though the remainder of the season will be an important test for the middle of the Vikings line; Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury and Oli Udoh have all struggled in pass protection at times, and the three have been penalized a combined 13 times. The Vikings face a decision on Bradbury's fifth-year option after the season; he will direct a line that faces tackles such as Aaron Donald, Linval Joseph, Cameron Heyward and Kenny Clark in the coming weeks.
Is Griffen back to starting?
What an eventful year it's been for the Vikings' relationship with Everson Griffen: The defensive end made no secret of his desire to return to Minnesota, signed a veteran minimum deal with the team in training camp, apologized to Cousins for a series of tweets criticizing the quarterback in January, got released (and promptly re-signed) in a procedural move before the regular season and made himself into an indispensable part of the defense again at age 33. Griffen has four sacks in six games, having started the past two and played 78.9% of the Vikings' defensive snaps the past two games. The Vikings brought him in as a situational pass rusher, and they have talked about wanting to limit his snap counts; they have been unable to take him off the field in close games when they have needed to win. As Griffen approaches his 34th birthday in December, his role as an integral part of the defense — and his climb up the Vikings' official sack leaderboard — will be fascinating to watch. He needs just seven more sacks to match Jared Allen for sixth in franchise history (with 85 ½).
Conquering tough schedule could determine Vikings' future
The Vikings' first four opponents after the bye — the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers and Packers — are a combined 20-6. They will face the 49ers and Lions in back-to-back road games after that, followed by a Thursday night home game against the Steelers. Then comes a four-week stretch of games against NFC opponents that are currently in the playoff race (the Bears, Rams, Packers and Bears again). The Vikings' final two road games are at night in the NFC North's two coldest venues (Soldier Field and Lambeau Field).
If they are able to coax a playoff berth out of an 11-game schedule that includes six on the road, six against teams with winning records and four against NFC North opponents, they will have reason to think they can make a postseason run and that they should keep their GM-coach-QB triumvirate of Spielman, Zimmer and Cousins together. A second consecutive season where the Vikings miss the playoffs — which hasn't happened yet under Spielman and Zimmer — could lead to big changes this offseason.
It doesn't figure to be uneventful, in a season where very little has been dull.