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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Issues Bold Predictions for Vikings 2nd Half of 2022

The Vikings have experienced a wild ride during the first half of the 2022 season.

Minnesota has won via double-digit comebacks and a double-doink field goal attempt during its six-game streak. The Vikings are also out to their strongest start to the season since 2009 and a division lead that hasn't been seen this early across the NFL in more than a decade.

Alec Lewis of The Athletic recently identified five bold predictions for Minnesota's second half of the season.

The first prediction Lewis noted was wide receiver Justin Jefferson will accomplish his goal of 2,000 receiving yards.

After reaching marks of 1,400 and 1,616 in his first two NFL seasons, Jefferson had big aspirations for his third year in the league. He wanted to become the first wide receiver in NFL history to reach 2,000 yards in a single season.

Through eight games this year, Jefferson has totaled 867 yards, which ranks second in the NFL. Jefferson's current pace projects him to rack up 1,842 yards.

By that logic, how can Jefferson get there?

Jefferson is averaging 124.2 yards per game since Week 4, but that still only puts him at roughly 1,985 for the season.

Lewis said two factors will have to come into play for Jefferson to accomplish his goal. He wrote:

It helps that the Vikings recently acquired tight end T.J. Hockenson. With fewer defenders focused on Jefferson in coverage, the more likely it is that he'll slither his way through the intermediate and deep areas of the field with swaths of open space.

Another added dimension is quarterback Kirk Cousins' increasing willingness to heave 1-on-1 balls to Jefferson.

Speaking of Cousins, Lewis added the Vikings quarterback will play better than he has so far this season.

Now eight games into the 2022 season, Cousins has his lowest completion rate (64.8 percent), his lowest air yards per attempt (6.60) and his lowest EPA [expected points added] per dropback (-0.03) since arriving in Minnesota in 2018.

Lewis said Cousins has faced a lot more pressure under center this season than in previous ones with the Vikings.

Cousins has seen a Cover 0 defensive look on 28 of his dropbacks this season, which is 20 more than he faced in the first eight games in each of his first four seasons with Minnesota.

Cousins has also been blitzed on 28.3 percent of his dropbacks on third-and-greater-than 6 yards, more than double what he's faced in a season while in a Vikings uniform.

Lewis pointed to comfort in Head Coach Kevin O'Connell's system and Cousins' career trajectory as to how he can improve his numbers going forward.

On the defensive side of the ball, Lewis predicted that Vikings outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith will be named the 2022 Comeback Player of the Year.

Smith saw his last season with Green Bay in 2021 end early due to a back injury. The veteran pass rusher then joined Minnesota in the offseason and instantly found success again.

Smith is currently tied for second in the NFL this season in sacks at 8.5 and was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week and Month in a two-day span in October.

Smith ranks No. 1 in pressure rate among all defenders who have rushed the passer at least 100 times.

That Smith had to overcome an injury he thought might end his career makes it all the more impressive, and — if he continues at this rate — he warrants consideration for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award.

Next stretch of games could be the real challenge for Vikings

The Vikings keep finding ways to win on the way to a 7-1 record that only trails the Eagles (8-0).

The Vikings have accomplished the feat through a multitude of factors, including fourth-quarter rallies, momentum-shifting defensive plays and a high level of situational mastery.

"I think it's complimentary football in the critical moments of games that define good teams in this league," O'Connell said. "You don't always win with style, but when you're able to win football games and consistently win close games by winning in the fourth quarter, that does matter.

"You hate to continue to put yourselves in positions where you need to come from behind and win, but at least we know we've kind of removed all doubt and have a belief in ourselves that we can go get those wins when we have to," O'Connell continued.

Matthew Coller of Purple Insider recently analyzed how this year's Vikings team compares to one a few years ago and looked ahead to Minnesota's second-half schedule.

Coller found similarities and differences between the 2022 Vikings and the 2019 team. Both teams had Cousins at quarterback and an impressive cluster of victories (eight wins in 10 weeks in 2019).

Coller noted both versions of Vikings teams earned victories against sub-.500 opponents to build their streaks.

During the hot run in '19, the Vikings beat one team with a winning record (the eventual 9-7 Eagles). They lost prove-it games against the Chiefs and Seahawks, and finished out the season with a home loss to Green Bay that eliminated any chance at taking the division crown.

Coller noted the key difference between the 2019 and current Minnesota team is through the play of Cousins.

In the 8-2 portion of their [2019] schedule, Cousins posted a 118.1 QB rating and averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. Following a slugfest in Washington [on Sunday], the Vikings QB is averaging 6.6 YPA and has an 89.5 rating. The Vikings haven't beaten anyone by more than one score, whereas in '19 six of the eight wins were by at least two scores.

Minnesota's next four games are against teams with winning records (Buffalo, Dallas, New England and the New York Jets). All four opponents are ranked in the top 10 in passing yards per attempt allowed.

Coller said the Vikings 4.5-game advantage over Green Bay in the NFC North division can allow Minnesota to not be at its best and still be in a solid position for the postseason.

No team since 2000 has started 7-1 and ended up with fewer than 10 wins. And with games against the Colts, Lions, Bears and Packers still on the schedule, it would seem 10 is the absolute worst-case scenario for this team.

Coller said the next stretch of games will provide a better picture of the Vikings season.

Even though the next four games won't give us all the answers about where this train will ultimately end up, they could act as a slingshot for a team that's starting to believe in itself. They could also act as a bucket of cold water to the "Team of Destiny" idea. Or running into some adversity could give them more chances to bond.

The '22 Vikings could end up like that '19 club that wasn't as strong as their best stretch and hit a buzzsaw in San Francisco, or they could come together as one of the best teams in franchise history. Everything seems to be on the table as they head into the second half of the season.