EAGAN, Minn. — What a ride for the 2022 Vikings, who won 13 games for the third time in franchise history while under the leadership of a first-time head coach and general manager.
Minnesota (13-4) clinched the NFC North on Dec. 17 for the first time since doing so on Dec. 17, 2017, and earned the No. 3 seed for the right to host the New York Giants (9-7-1) on Sunday in the Wild Card Round of the NFC Playoffs.
The matchup will mark the first time in 31 trips to the playoffs that Minnesota has opened a postseason by hosting the team it played in its regular-season home finale.
While a huge contingent of fans has been along for every step of the journey, from the hiring of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as GM on Jan. 26, 2022, to officially naming Kevin O'Connell as the 10th head coach in franchise history on Feb. 16, there's also likely a few who might be paying a little more attention now that the playoffs are upon us.
With the latter in mind, here's what we've learned so far about the 2022 Vikings.
1. They won the close ones like no other team
In between 16-point victories over division foes to open and close the season, the Vikings went 11-4, winning all 11 one-score games (the most in NFL history) and falling by at least 11 points in each loss.
The Vikings went 3-2 against teams that made the postseason with wins at Miami and Buffalo and against the Giants, who were 8-4-1 in one-score games this season and went 2-6 in games against teams that made the playoffs.
2. Kirk Cousins hit another gear in fourth quarters
Kirk Cousins tied former Lions QB Matthew Stafford's NFL record of eight fourth-quarter comebacks in one season.
He ranked third in the NFL with 112 completions, second in passing yards (1,339), fourth in passer rating (104.9) and tied Tom Brady for the most touchdown passes (13) in fourth quarters this season.
3. Justin Jefferson is prominently featured
Justin Jefferson became the first Viking to lead the NFL in receptions (128) and receiving yards (1,809) and the youngest (age 23) to do so, edging out Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Hutson in 1936.
Jefferson totaled 184 targets, which also led the NFL. He was targeted 11 or more times in 11 separate games and posted triple digits in yards in nine of those contests. Three of the four teams that defeated Minnesota were able to execute plans that limited Jefferson (Philadelphia, Dallas and Green Bay).
4. The Vikings have spread the ball around after that, though
Part of the growth for Cousins and the offense as the group advanced through its first season in this offense was an ability to get the ball to other places and not solely be dependent on Jefferson. Whether it was the game-winning score to Adam Thielen against New England, the deep rally-starter to K.J. Osborn against the Colts or the steady diet of pigskins tossed to midseason trade acquisition T.J. Hockenson, the Vikings were able to spread the football.
The Vikings and Chargers became the eighth and ninth teams in NFL history to have at least four players with 60-plus receptions on the season.
5. RBs have been getting more involved in passing game
The Vikings went through a run of the season without finding much success with their screen game, but that changed in several games down the stretch.
Dalvin Cook's 64-yard catch and scamper against the Colts provided the biggest boom, but the Vikings also executed a screen to Jefferson late against the Giants to position Greg Joseph for the winning 61-yard field goal. Cousins said the play by Cook was his favorite by the running back.
6. Vikings are still trying to run the ball better
Cook finished sixth in the NFL in rush attempts (264) and yards (1,173) as the team transitioned to more of a pass-first mentality, but his average (4.44 — 25th in NFL) was undermined by negative runs the Vikings are trying to reduce. Cook showed what he can do when given space to pick up steam and blocks during his 81-yard touchdown run at Buffalo.
7. Filling gaps on offensive line
The Vikings made it through Week 11 with the same starting five offensive linemen, but Minnesota has had to fill multiple gaps on the back end of the schedule.
Blake Brandel relieved left tackle Christian Darrisaw in Weeks 10-11 and then started the next three games before landing on Injured Reserve. Brandel was designated to return to practice Wednesday morning.
Garrett Bradbury started at center through Week 13 before suffering a back injury that's sidelined him since. Austin Schlottmann started four games before suffering a season-ending injury at Green Bay. He was replaced by Chris Reed, who started last week.
The Vikings also lost Brian O'Neill for the rest of the season via a no-contact calf injury. He was replaced by Olisaemeka Udoh.
8. Hockenson is a fast learner
The Vikings acquired T.J. Hockenson just before the trade deadline and as Irv Smith, Jr., was landing on Injured Reserve between Weeks 8 and 9. Hockenson only had a few days to learn the playbook and terminology, but he recorded nine receptions for 70 yards on nine targets in his Vikings debut.
Minnesota got Irv Smith back last week and has Johnny Mundt, whose receiving numbers this season are higher than his career tallies from 2017-21 with the Rams.
9. Preferred personnel grouping
The Vikings leaned heavily on 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) in 2022. Minnesota used 11 personnel on 825 snaps (73.6 percent of plays), according to Next Gen Stats. That was up from 456 plays (42.1 percent) in 2021.
While they have a much higher frequency of 11, the team has also mixed and matched personnel groups along the way.
Sunday at Chicago, Minnesota opened its second possession with three consecutive plays in 21 personnel (Cook at RB, and C.J. Ham at fullback). Minnesota moved 43 yards in just three plays.
10. Za'Darius Smith & Danielle Hunter tandem lands 10+ sacks each
The first year of Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter working together resulted in 10-plus sacks apiece. Hunter (10.5) surged toward the end of the season. In his final two games of 2022 at U.S. Bank Stadium, Hunter totaled 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits.
Za'Darius Smith won NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 8 and Defensive Player of the Month for October after helping Minnesota finish the month with a perfect 4-0 record.
The pairing hasn't simultaneously descended on QBs the way the Purple People Eaters did, but each player has forced opponents to deeply consider how to devote protection resources.
They were one of four sets of teammates with double-digit sacks in 2022 and the first set of Vikings to do so since 2004 (Vikings Ring of Honor DT Kevin Williams and DE Lance Johnstone).
11. Dalvin Tomlinson an underrated difference maker
Dalvin Tomlinson, or "Big Dalvin" as he's known (to eliminate confusion), has meant a big difference for the Vikings defense this season.
In the 13 games he played (Weeks 1-8 and 13-18), opponents averaged 22.0 points against the Vikings (removing the pair of return touchdowns by the Colts and Packers).
In the four games he missed with a calf injury, opponents averaged 28.3 points against the Vikings.
View game photos of the Week 10 matchup between the Vikings and Bills at Highmark Stadium,
12. Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks paired nicely
Two of the biggest beneficiaries of Tomlinson being in the lineup and solid play by defensive line teammates are interior linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks.
Kendricks took over the "green dot" responsibilities of wearing the audio receiver in his helmet and calling the defense. That can be a big adjustment and bog some people down, but he continued to make plays on the football and show his instincts and acumen on the way to leading the team with 137 tackles.
He paired nicely with offseason addition Jordan Hicks, who finished with 129 tackles and repeatedly showed a knack for delivering clutch stops.
13. Patrick Peterson passed multiple tests
It was somewhat strange to see opposing quarterbacks challenge Patrick Peterson after so many years of facing limited challenges.
The result with more footballs thrown the eight-time Pro Bowler's direction was more plays made on the football.
Peterson nabbed a pick in Miami near his hometown, plus two deep in Minnesota territory at Buffalo. He added another against the Giants and at the Bears Sunday to finish with five interceptions on the season, which ranks second in his career behind seven in 2012. He also totaled 15 passes defensed, his first time in double digits since 2013.
14. Harrison Smith was rested by coaches before heading into fifth postseason
Peterson wound up tying Harrison Smith for the team lead in interceptions this season, and they were the only teammates to have five apiece in 2022.
While the plays that end with the football in Smith's hands are the most conspicuous noticeable, he also plays a role in confusing opposing quarterbacks before snaps and has helped out in run support at key times when brought down into the box.
After clinching the division against the Colts, the Vikings opted to reduce Smith's snaps against the Giants and at Green Bay. He did not play in Week 18 after encountering some knee soreness last week, but the anticipation is that he'll be refreshed for his fifth postseason with the Vikings.
15. Defense yielded yards but came up with key stops and turnovers
The Vikings ranked 31st in total yards (388.7 per game) and passing yards allowed (265.6 per game) and tied for 28th in points against per game (25.1).
Those rankings don't often coincide with a division title, but Minnesota was able to stack victories, including seven in a row from Week 3 through Week 10, by making clutch stops and causing turnovers.
Minnesota recorded eight interceptions and recovered seven fumbles during its longest win streak of the season.
16. Vikings limited penalties
I fielded a good question/comment in this week’s Mailbag regarding penalties that prompted a deeper dive into the numbers.
Minnesota drastically improved in that aspect in 2022, compared to 2021.
Minnesota had 111 accepted penalties for 1,043 yards and 230 yards nullified by penalty in 2021; opponents that season were flagged 93 times for 786 yards and had 106 yards nullified by penalty. The assessment differences were 18 penalties for the Vikings and a net of minus-257 yards in mark-offs that season.
This season, Minnesota had 88 accepted penalties for 689 yards and had 124 yards nullified by penalty; opponents were flagged 111 times for 926 yards and had 249 yards nullified by penalty. The assessment differences were 23 fewer penalties for the Vikings than opponents and a net of plus-237 yards this season.
And year over year, that's 23 fewer penalties assessed against the Vikings for a difference of 354 yards. Carrying that cleaner play into the postseason will be important.
17. Greg Joseph bounced back to finish strong
Joseph followed winning NFC Special Teams Player of Week 4 by kicking all five field goals in London with a bit of a rough patch that included missing three of four field goals and two of 10 extra points in the rest of October.
Joseph, however, bounced back in November and December, making all 13 field goals and 20 of 22 extra points. That run included his franchise-record, 61-yard winner against the Giants in Week 16.
18. Ryan Wright decision worked out
After battling for a roster spot in training camp, the decision to keep undrafted rookie Ryan Wright worked out for the Vikings.
Wright had a nice showing in the preseason finale and followed it with a fine campaign. He booted 73 punts with a gross average of 47.4 and net average of 42.9. Wright helped the Vikings during some field position battles, particularly in wins at Miami and Washington. On the season, he pinned 32 of his punts inside an opponents' 20-yard line, tying for fourth, and had just one touchback when the ball escaped a teammate's grasp.
Wright also showcased his arm with a 13-yard pass to Jalen Nailor on a fake punt at London.
19. Kene Nwangwu scored on an improvised kick return
Return specialist Kene Nwangwu made noise as a rookie by returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in his first five games and fielded plenty of opportunities.
Nwangwu tied Green Bay's Keisean Nixon for the league lead with 35 kickoff returns and ranked second in yardage (920 was behind Nixon's 1,009).
The most dynamic play, however, involved a return that Vikings coaches and players drew up at halftime of their Thanksgiving game against the Patriots. The result was a 97-yard touchdown that immediately answered a score by New England and tied the game at 23.
View postgame celebration photos from Minnesota's comeback overtime victory over Indianapolis at U.S. Bank Stadium on Dec. 17, 2022. The Vikings (11-3) have clinched the NFC North Championship following their 39-36 win vs. the Colts.
20. Core teams players embrace their opportunities
Core special teams units in the NFL are often composed of players who starred on offense or defense in high school and college.
Some players can have a tendency to look down on special teams, but the units (kickoff and punt return, kickoff and punt coverage, field goal attempt and field goal defend) have authentically embraced their jobs as opportunities to make major impacts on games.
The groups feed off the energy and innovation of first-time Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels, and the group has so much fun that veterans who are not tasked with playing special teams regularly attend the meetings.
21. Free agency finds produced results
The Vikings biggest splash in free agency was signing Za'Darius Smith after he had played for three seasons in Green Bay.
But Harrison Phillips (Bills), Chandon Sullivan (Packers) and Jordan Hicks (Eagles) also were key additions who have brought deep-playoff experience from their time with other teams.
Those players added in the early days during free agency strengthened Minnesota, but the Vikings also were opportunistic in claiming Duke Shelley after his release by the Bears and signing Khyiris Tonga from the Falcons practice squad in October.
22. O'Connell believes in developing depth of the roster
It became clear somewhere along the way that O'Connell and his staff prioritize investing time in the development and inclusion of players who may not be as proven in games as other players.
This is somewhat hard to quantify, but there are signs that the appreciation and investment into players from a health and performance standpoint, as well as just in trying to build as connected a team as possible, from the All-Pro/Pro Bowlers on the roster through the practice squad members who have yet to take a snap.