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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Takes Close Look at Vikings Late-Game Situations

EAGAN, Minn. — For a second consecutive season, Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has the Vikings vying for a berth in the NFC Playoffs.

Although it will be tough to win the division again this season and the hope of matching last year's 13-4 record has faded, Minnesota enters Week 16 as the No. 6 seed in the NFC.

That's even after going 1-3 in the past four games with losses by 1, 2 and 3 points, to go along with a 3-0 win at Las Vegas.

The Athletic's Alec Lewis took a closer look at O’Connel**l** with three regular-season games remaining. Lewis noted there's been some criticisms but then assessed "How many of the Vikings' recent losses are really on O'Connell?"

That the question even exists is a testament to what this Vikings team, flawed from the beginning, has accomplished.

Let's briefly revisit the team's preseason outlook. Factoring in the challenging schedule, the hiring of Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores and a more experienced offense under O'Connell, an optimistic viewpoint formed: This Vikings team should be better than last year's, but the record might not show it.

Minnesota's brass did not double down on aging veterans. It did not review its 13-4 record from 2022, featuring 11 one-score victories, and think: Add a little seasoning, and we'll be on our way. Instead, continuing its "competitive rebuild" roster-building approach, which has always had its eyes on 2024 and beyond, the Vikings believed in reshuffling the deck and relying on youth. Logically, it felt as if the Vikings could vie for an NFC North title and still have a puncher's chance in the playoffs.

But the Vikings opened 1-4, closing a loss to the Chiefs in which Justin Jefferson suffered a hamstring injury. The Vikings began a five-game winning streak, however, that was marred by the season-ending Achilles injury at Green Bay in Week 8.

Arguably the team's two best players would be absent. Hopes and expectations for the season went down the toilet, as evidenced by the dejected locker room in Green Bay following the victory.

Having relevant divisional games to end the season? Making the playoffs? These felt like pipe dreams until [Joshua] Dobbs morphed into NFL Street's "gamebreaker" mode in Atlanta. Wins against the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints revived the team's hopes, but the 1-3 roller-coaster ride since then has resulted in some fixating on O'Connell's late-game decision-making.

"There was a reason behind what we were trying to get done (against the Bengals) that had had some effectiveness earlier on in the game," O'Connell said Monday.

Ahead of Saturday's game, the Vikings had tried eight quarterback sneaks on third or fourth-and-1. Their conversion rate was 87.5 percent, which is higher than the league average. Lewis addressed O'Connell's play calling against the Bengals, and other critical decisions he's had to make this season.

The second failed sneak on fourth down, with [Brandon] Powell again doing the pushing from behind, yielded an onslaught of questions. O'Connell shared Monday that the Vikings staff had noticed the Bengals being willing to play a defender head-up against the center in bigger personnel groupings. They thought the initial surge would be most effective with lighter personnel.

Just like winning papers over problems, losses magnify these decisions. Playing with a backup quarterback decreases the overall margin for error. Even if you're 7-7 in a season where 7-7 seemed possible at full strength. Even if two failed conversions, on high-probability calls, occur in a game where a Nick Mullens-led offense finishes as the third most successful down-to-down offensive performance that week.

Jefferson discusses first game with Mullens

In part to highlight his partnership with Little Caesars, Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson spoke with Scott Polacek of Bleacher Report about the Vikings reaching a critical part of the schedule and reflected on his first game with Mullens as Minnesota's starter.

Polacek wrote the following:

Everything is still on the table for a 7-7 team that is holding onto one of the NFC's wild-card spots and facing a closing stretch of three divisional games against the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers.

And the Vikings are ready to take advantage of the opportunity with Jefferson back in the lineup.

"We have the most confidence," the star wide receiver told Bleacher Report. "This is that stretch for us. It's now or never. We have to put away all of the turmoil that we had earlier in the season. The quarterback change, the injuries, we need to put all of that to the side. We just need to focus in as a group and lean on each other and have that confidence in one another to make sure every person is doing their job.

"These upcoming three games are big for us, it's going to be the outcome of our season," Jefferson added. "We're going to see if we attack it full steam and make it to the playoffs. Hopefully we do that."

Minnesota (7-7) faces the Lions (10-4) at home on Sunday. Jefferson said he's excited to be back on the field and he looks forward to playing again with Mullens.

"Nick played a tremendous game," Jefferson said. "He was out there calling great plays and making great throws and making the proper checks. We definitely have confidence in him, just like I said before the game.

"We always have that confidence in whoever is out there on that field just because of the preparation we have throughout the week and the confidence we give the quarterback as a skill group," Jefferson added. "We have to go out there and make sure that he has that confidence and that he's comfortable to go out there and make some big plays. As a skill group, we have to try to make it as easy as possible."

Click here to read Bleacher Report's full story on Jefferson.