The Minnesota Vikings enter their post-bye schedule with a 5-1 record, a four-game winning streak, and sole possession of first place in the NFC North by 2.5 games.
Minnesota Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said the team has accomplished those feats by "winning on the margins."
"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."
Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune recently analyzed five areas that have propelled Minnesota to its hot start.
The first area Goessling pointed out was the Vikings special teams. He wrote:
The Vikings success here, in [Special Teams 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.
Wright was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for Week 6 after executing 10 punts for an average of 44.1 yards against the Miami Dolphins, including a 73-yarder. Kicker Greg Joseph also earned the award after connecting on a career-high five field goals against the New Orleans Saints in London in Week 4.
Goessling added on average, the Vikings have started on offense at their own 32-yard line, the best starting position in the NFL. On the other side, Minnesota's opponents have started roughly 75.6 yards away from the end zone, the furthest mark in the league. The Vikings special teams unit also led the NFL in expected points added at 8.12 through six weeks.
The second area Goessling wrote was Minnesota's success in situational football.
Vikings Assistant Head Coach Mike Pettine and Pass Game Specialist/Game Management Coordinator Ryan Cordell have led weekly situational masters meetings for the entire team. Goessling said as a result, Minnesota has capitalized on both sides of the ball.
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.
Goessling noted the Vikings have recorded 10 turnovers through their six games, which is tied for eighth in the NFL. Offensively, Minnesota has only turned the ball over six times (fourth-fewest in the NFL) and ranks second in the NFL with 25 penalties against, which is well-below the league average of 40.5.
Goessling added Minnesota's penalties have cost the team 185 yards while its opponents have been penalized for 368 yards this season.
Another area Goessling attributed to the Vikings success has been linked to their sports performance staff.
O'Connell gave plenty of credit to Executive Director of Player Health and Performance 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.
Cousins' comfort level boosted
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is in his fifth season under center for the Vikings, but first with O'Connell, a former quarterback.
Will Ragatz of Sports Illustrated recently wrote wide receiver Adam Thielen said in an interview with The Pat McAfee Show that he believes the team has benefitted from the new culture under Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, particularly Cousins.
"I think him just being able to be himself and to be able to just go out there and let it fly (is different)," Thielen said. "I think he has the ability to just kind of be himself and not worry about 'Hey, I have to do this.' or 'I'm expected to do this to help this team win.' "
In six games, Cousins has completed 151 of his 228 pass attempts for 1,502 yards and nine touchdowns.
Winning helps, but it's clear O'Connell's presence has made a difference in terms of Cousins' off-the-field comfort level in Minnesota. He seems more relaxed in press conferences and he's wearing teammates' chains on postgame flights, which is a sign of someone who's having a lot of fun on and off the field.
The Vikings offense has a lot of room to grow, and Cousins knows he can play better. But they're winning, which is all that really matters.
"He'll admit it, we all will admit it, that we haven't played our best football on offense," Thielen told McAfee. "And that's a good feeling when you're 5-1 and really haven't even come close to reaching our full potential as an offense."