The Vikings are back from their bye week, leading the NFC North by themselves in late October for the first time in five years and set for an 11-game stretch that will determine if this team is more like its predecessors from 2017 or 2016.
In 2017, the Vikings hit their bye week at 6-2 after a win over the Browns in London, won seven of their final eight and won the NFC North by four games over the Lions, who finished ahead of the Packers for second place after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone at U.S. Bank Stadium in October.
The 2016 team went 5-0 before the bye, returned to Mike Zimmer's warning that "fat cats get slaughtered" before a game in Philadelphia and lost eight of its final 11, finishing 8-8 and becoming the sixth team to miss the playoffs after a 5-0 start since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990.
Adam Thielen, whose breakout season as a wide receiver was in 2016, still thinks of that team as a cautionary tale.
"There's a few guys that were on that team, so I think [it's] trying to use that experience and talk about it," he said. "But at the same time, we're such a different team: a different locker room, a different mind-set. I think this team is trending up.
"We still have so much room for improvement, so that's the good thing. We're early in learning this system. I know we have not played our best football. I think that ability to find ways to win without playing your best football is important."
Even as the Vikings work to smooth out the rough edges that have made many of their games closer than necessary, they have continued to win. Their 2½-game division lead is the biggest in the NFL, and they have beaten each of their three NFC North rivals at U.S. Bank Stadium.
They have done it by "winning on the margins," as coach Kevin O'Connell talked about before his first season with the team: even without major changes to their roster, the Vikings have improved by finding efficiencies in some areas and connectedness in others.
They rank 14th in points scored and 12th in points allowed; they have rushed for 100 yards just three times, and have passed for more than 300 only once. They have had only 16 plays of 20 yards or more — tied for the fifth-fewest in the league through six games — and given up 25 (tied for the eighth-most). Yet they have managed to win four consecutive one-score games after going 2-5 in those games to start last season.
"I think it comes down to those margins and how can we be good on some plays and situations that maybe don't always get talked about on Monday morning, but they're winning plays and winning philosophies for us," O'Connell said. "I think those margins become even smaller and we're going to have to be that much better. We're going to have to overcome hopefully less adversity, and we'll overcome it with more consistency."
As the Vikings return from their bye, here is a look at five areas where they've boosted their record beyond what may have been expected.
The Vikings' success here, in coordinator Matt Daniels' first season with the team, has shown up in different ways almost every week. Patrick Peterson blocked a field goal against Philadelphia. Against the Saints, Kris Boyd forced a fumble on Deonte Harty's punt return, and punter Ryan Wright completed a pass off a fake punt for a key first down. Josh Metellus stopped the Dolphins' run attempt on a fake punt a week ago.
Kicker Greg Joseph was named the NFC special teams player of the week after hitting five field goals against the Saints. Wright won the award last week after averaging 44.1 yards on 10 punts, including a 73-yard punt that was still high enough for Metellus and Kene Nwangwu to arrive and force a 2-yard loss on Tyreek Hill's return attempt. Wright has put 15 punts inside an opponent's 20-yard line, tied for the most in the league through Week 6.
The Vikings' starting field position — their own 32-yard line — is the best in the NFL. Their opponents have started an average of 75.6 yards from the goal line, the furthest in the NFL. And through six weeks, the group led the NFL in expected points added, with 8.12 for the season.
Game management coordinator Ryan Cordell's "situational masters" meetings have become a hit with players, and the Vikings have excelled in several areas where they struggled last year. O'Connell's emphasis on the "middle eight" minutes of the game — the final four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the third quarter — led to the Vikings scoring 59 points in the four minutes before halftime, the most in the NFL through the first six weeks of the season.
And a team that saw its playoff chances disappear at the ends of games last year has produced stops when it has needed them through the past four weeks. Metellus picked off a Jared Goff Hail Mary in Week 3, Cameron Dantzler's strip of Ihmir Smith-Marsette sealed the victory over the Bears, and the Vikings forced two fourth-quarter turnovers to end the Dolphins' comeback hopes in Week 6.
Turnovers and penalties
The Vikings have forced a total of 10 takeaways through six games, tied for the fifth-most in the league. Their six giveaways were also tied for the fifth-fewest in the NFL in that span. They were also tied with the Rams for the fewest penalties in the league, with 28 accepted penalties through six games.
On offense, the Vikings have had just 19 yards nullified by penalties this season; their opponents have lost 205 yards to penalties that nullified offensive gains. The Dolphins had 36 nullified yards on one drive alone in Week 6.
"Although statistically [it was] not a big day for our offense, I did think the no turnovers and limited penalties helped contribute to us winning the game," O'Connell said last Monday after the Dolphins game.
For the season, the Vikings have been penalized for just 185 yards, nearly half as many as their opponents (368).
O'Connell gave plenty of credit to executive player health and performance director Tyler Williams and head athletic trainer Uriah Myrie for the way they planned the team's back-to-back games in London and Minneapolis, which resulted in the Vikings becoming the first team to win in the U.S. a week after winning in the U.K. The team landed in London on Friday, with a plan to get players acclimated for one practice in England before the win over the Saints, and arrived back in the U.S. early Monday morning, helping players readjust to Central time before the Bears game.
From there, Williams and Myrie started planning for the Vikings' game in Miami, telling players early in the week to hydrate and spend extra time acclimating to humidity in the team's saunas and steam rooms.
"Shoot, I probably could have given some game balls to our sports performance staff," O'Connell joked after the Dolphins game, "but then Tyler Williams will expect them every week and we don't want that."
The Vikings have been one of the league's healthiest teams this season, after sitting starters out of preseason games and reducing the workload in practices to keep players fresh.
Locker room culture
Though some might dismiss O'Connell's emphasis on collaboration and player empowerment as corporate lingo, it's exactly what players said they wanted after the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer in January.
The coach has met with Justin Jefferson to hear his ideas and work through his frustrations during a two-game stretch where Jefferson wasn't getting the ball; his offense has empowered Kirk Cousins to make more decisions at the line of scrimmage. Players speak publicly and privately about feeling more connected to coaches and confident in difficult moments.
"This is the feeling I'm used to [from college], just being part of a winning team," Jefferson said. "I'm just happy we're in this position, 5-and-1, instead of being in the position we were in my first two years. I feel like this team is getting back to where we'd like to be."
Sept 11: vs. Green Bay, W, 23-7
Sept. 19: at Philadelphia, L, 24-7
Sept. 25: vs. Detroit, W, 28-24
Oct. 2: at New Orleans in London, W, 28-25
Oct. 9: vs. Chicago, W, 29-22
Oct. 16: at Miami, W, 24-16
Oct. 23: BYE
Oct. 30: vs. Arizona, noon
Nov. 6: at Washington, noon
Nov. 13: at Buffalo, noon
Nov. 20: vs. Dallas, 3:25 p.m.
Nov. 24: vs. New England, 7:20 p.m.
Dec. 4: vs. N.Y. Jets, noon
Dec. 11: at Detroit, noon
Dec. 17 or 18: vs. Indianapolis, TBD
Dec. 24: vs. N.Y. Giants, noon
Jan. 1: at Green Bay, 3:25 p.m.
Jan 7 or 8: at Chicago, TBD