MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. – Why did the Vikings offense look so lousy for so long on Sunday in the Florida sun?

It wasn't the heat; it was the mediocrity.

Kirk Cousins looked tentative, and bashed himself after the game for failing to sustain drives.

Dalvin Cook looked helpless until late in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins' physical front.

“We've learned a lot about our football team. We have also learned, as coaches, that we have a long way to go and a lot of room to improve.”
Kevin O'Connell

Until the last play of the third quarter, the Vikings offense, playing against a slew of backups on the injury-depleted Dolphins defense, had managed zero plays of 25 or more yards.

Of the Vikings' star skill-position players, only Justin Jefferson looked sharp, and for three quarters he alone couldn't put away the free-falling Miami Dolphins and their two backup quarterbacks.

This was a Dolphins team that switched from its third-string quarterback, Skylar Thompson, to its second-string quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, when Thompson was injured in the second quarter. Bridgewater, although ahead of Thompson on the depth chart, was playing the role of backup because he had been in the concussion protocol until Saturday.

The Dolphins were on their way to a third consecutive loss in which they would fail to score more than 17 points.

This was the struggling team the Vikings couldn't subdue in their 24-16 victory, and this makes it four weeks in a row in which the Vikings have played down to the level of their competition.

Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell's nickname is KO. This season, it should be TKO. His team's four-game winning streak has come in close games against the fraudulent Lions, the injury-wracked Saints, the woeful Bears and the collapsing Dolphins.

The Vikings are 5-1 with a two-game lead in the NFC North entering their bye week, and their key players have been remarkably healthy.

The Vikings need to play better to meet their own and everyone else's aesthetic standards. They might not need to play better to win the NFC North.

The Bears and Lions remain befuddled by this game called tackle football. The Packers are learning how important star receivers are, and that Aaron Rodgers' years of passive-aggressive behavior might not play well within a team that needs him to be a spectacular player and leader.

In a league featuring a high percentage of close games and upsets, winning close, ugly and frequently is a sure path to the postseason.

"I'm really proud to be 5-1 right now," O'Connell said. "We've learned a lot about our football team. We have also learned, as coaches, that we have a long way to go and a lot of room to improve. Which I'm really excited about."

Everything he said could be labeled a coach's cliché, but in this case, he's speaking the truth.

To be a good team, rather than a team with a good record, the Vikings will need to improve their pass rush, their ability to run against tough fronts, their ability to make big plays in the passing game against sound defenses and their ability to sustain drives, especially during the middle of the game when defenses have adjusted to their game plan.

"We need to play better," Cousins said. "We need to execute better. But it's great to have these conversations after a win as opposed to a loss."

What should intrigue Vikings fans more than the nature of the victories is the atmosphere in the locker room.

For what it's worth — and its relative worth will become apparent in the coming weeks — the Vikings' key players are thrilled with the current makeup of their organization.

The team's veteran leaders — Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks — frequently gush, unprompted, about their affection for O'Connell and the way he treats them.

"Every day I wake up, I'm happy to go to work," Cook said. "That's a blessing."

O'Connell has won five of his first six games as an NFL head coach.

That guarantees him nothing in the far-flung future. In the short term, and for as long as he keeps winning, it guarantees that he will have the players' full attention.

For a young and relatively unproven coach, there is nothing more valuable than being taken seriously by the people who will form your reputation.