A Vikings team that limped into its bye week at 1-5, after a stupefying loss to a winless Falcons team that had just fired its coach and general manager, now finds itself holding a playoff position in a field expanded to 14 teams to fill more fan bases with hope and the coffers of the NFL and its TV partners with cash.
There is an extra playoff team in both conferences, and right now in the NFC it would be the Vikings, winners for the fifth time in six games on Sunday after a 27-24 overtime victory over a one-win Jacksonville Jaguars team that fired its GM this week. Minnesota is 6-6 and a No. 7 seed after Arizona lost to the Los Angeles Rams 38-28 late Sunday afternoon. Should these NFC playoff seeds stick in this final month, the Vikings would head to Lambeau Field on wild-card weekend.
The Vikings' abysmal start left them with little margin for error, and by those lights, no one in the home locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium was complaining on Sunday about the final result. Celebrations, however, were muted.
"Usually after you win a game, there's a lot of hootin' and hollerin' going on in the locker room," coach Mike Zimmer said. "The last two weeks, it hasn't been like that because they know they can play way better than what they're playing, so I think right now they feel fortunate to be where they are but they understand — I know they understand and I continue to preach it — that we have to stop doing these things."
The coach's list of grievances Sunday was long. For the second consecutive week, the Vikings allowed a defensive touchdown in the first minute of the third quarter, this one the product of what quarterback Kirk Cousins called a miscommunication with running back Dalvin Cook. Jaguars linebacker Joe Schobert intercepted Cousins' pass before Cook turned around to look for the ball, returning it for a touchdown that gave Jacksonville a 16-6 lead.
Cousins and Cook botched an exchange on the Jaguars 1 in the third quarter. Kicker Dan Bailey missed two extra points and left a 51-yarder in the fourth quarter short. Confidence in their kicker lacking, the Vikings ran Cook eight consecutive times in overtime. When they did bring Bailey out for the 23-yard winner, it was only after Dakota Dozier committed a false start from the goal line.
Want more? The Vikings took an offside penalty on offense when rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson lined up too far forward in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Kris Boyd was flagged for his third illegal block above the waist this season. Mike Glennon's game-opening touchdown pass to rookie Laviska Shenault Jr. came on a pass that bounced forward off Boyd's arm.
The Vikings have playoff positioning available to them next week against the 7-5 Buccaneers, thanks to a Jaguars team that committed 10 penalties, turned the ball over four times — two after Vikings rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler ripped the ball out of a Jacksonville player's hands — and gave up a safety when Glennon was sacked in his own end zone following the botched Cousins-Cook exchange.
The Jaguars, in short, played like a one-win team. They joined the Panthers as the second last-place club in as many weeks to lose at U.S. Bank Stadium only after missing a game-winning field goal attempt (Chase McLaughlin's 62-yarder at the end of regulation Sunday was well short).
"You have to remember it's balance, right?" Cousins said. "It's never, 'Hey great job, go celebrate a win.' And it's never, 'Hey, you need to play better, think about your mistakes.' It's somewhere in the middle. I was pleased with the resiliency. The number of times the defense kept giving us opportunities says a lot about their effort. If you take away the touchdown we gifted them, our defense didn't give up a lot today points-wise. They've done a great job. There's a lot to be proud of when it comes to the resiliency, certainly."
The Jaguars didn't score on their next five drives after Schobert's interception return TD, moving the ball for only 54 yards in that time against a Vikings defense forced to shuffle its linebacking group after Eric Kendricks — who was limited in practice Thursday and Friday — aggravated his left calf injury in pregame warmups.
Cousins directed third-quarter scoring drives of 75 and 90 yards that ended with touchdown passes to C.J. Ham and Jefferson, who finished with nine catches for 121 yards and became the fifth receiver in the Super Bowl era to surpass 1,000 yards in his first 12 games.
The Vikings could have been in position to win in regulation, but Glennon directed a 75-yard scoring drive that included completions to D.J. Chark for 22 and to Collin Johnson for 21, before James Robinson scored from 1 yard out to pull the Jaguars within two with 1:08 remaining. When Glennon hit Johnson in the back of the end zone for the tying two-point conversion, Zimmer lost his headset and slammed his play sheet to the ground.
In overtime, after the Vikings were forced to punt deep in their own territory, Dan Chisena sprinted downfield to force a holding penalty that backed up Jacksonville. Glennon's third-down overthrow was snagged by Vikings safety Harrison Smith at the Jaguars 46. After Jefferson drew a penalty for lining up offside, Cousins hit tight end Tyler Conklin for a 10-yard first down, and Cook picked up a first down with a cutback after the Jaguars created a pile at the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings moved the ball to the Jaguars 1, seeming reluctant to try Bailey again until Dozier's false start made it the obvious choice.
"I don't have any idea," Zimmer said, when asked what happened with his kicker Sunday. "He pushed them all, it looked like to me, but I couldn't tell if he just missed them. I mean, the snaps looked fine, the hold was fine, I don't know. Really, Bailey's had a great year so I hope this is just an enigma."
The word Zimmer used to describe his kicker's day might be the one most suitable for a season that could result in the Vikings' first back-to-back postseason trips since 2008 and 2009.
They will play two of their next three on the road against the Buccaneers and Saints, with a home game against the Bears in between. Perhaps those games will finally solve the mystery of exactly what this Vikings team is.
"Those final four games are going to tell the story," Cousins said. "I remember 2018, I felt like the last game of the year kind of told the story. So you can play all the way through, but you have to keep doing it week after week. Otherwise, it's not going to matter where you were on December 6."