MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have made the first year for coach Kevin O'Connell an unforgettable and unparalleled season of late-game drama, with an NFL-record 11 wins in one-score decisions.
The cohesion, confidence and firm grasp of the finer details that O'Connell has helped foster have continued to come through at all the right times, intangible but important traits that ought to serve the Vikings (12-3) well in the playoffs.
All these fourth-quarter deficits are a pattern that can't be dismissed, either, if they're going to make more than a brief postseason appearance. Their vulnerability on defense — allowing the second-most yards per game and per play in the league — is a glaring issue. But an offense with league-leading receiver Justin Jefferson, two other Pro Bowl picks in quarterback Kirk Cousins and tight end T.J. Hockenson and a standout running back in Dalvin Cook ought to be producing more complete performances than it has.
“We’re still hunting that four quarters of true, consistent football that we want to see,” O'Connell said after the 27-24 victory over the New York Giants on Saturday.
The Vikings, for all their potency, have had few games this season when they didn’t get stuck for extended stretches.
Their 71 punt attempts are tied for the sixth most in the NFL this year, including five against the Giants. Though they're seventh in the league in scoring with an average of 25.2 points per game, their 42 three-and-out possessions are tied for sixth-most per Sportradar data.
“We’re well aware that our best football is hopefully out in front of us, and that’s only going to come from the work and the commitment to continuing to build what we’re doing here the right way," O'Connell said.
Cousins has quickly developed a strong connection with Hockenson, who set a single-game Vikings tight end record with a career-high 13 receptions against the Giants. Two of them were touchdowns. In eight games since he arrived in the trade with Detroit, Hockenson has been targeted 73 times.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Vikings have allowed 300-plus yards passing in six of their last seven games. Whether because of strategy, talent or technique, there has simply been too much space in the secondary for opposing receivers to operate on a recurring basis.
Rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah has been seeing an increasing amount of fill-in time for Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, an apprenticeship that could portend a starting role sooner than later if the salary-cap crunch prompts the Vikings to dump either veteran next year.
Asamoah played a season-high 39% of the snaps against the Giants. He caught tight end Daniel Bellinger at the Minnesota 24 in the second quarter and forced a fumble he scooped up for a 12-yard return. The Vikings turned that into a field goal.
Cornerback Cameron Dantzler didn’t play against the Giants after aggravating an ankle injury that previously kept him out for four games, and Duke Shelley again started in his place. Dantzler was active but did not play on Dec. 17 against the Colts due to an illness.
Center Garrett Bradbury (back) was sidelined for the third straight game, with Austin Schlottman filling in. ... Backup defensive tackle James Lynch (shoulder) left early with a recurrence of his injury. ... Aside from the depth concern at cornerback, with Dantzler's absences, Akayleb Evans (concussion) remaining on injured reserve and Andrew Booth Jr. (knee) out for the rest of the season, the Vikings are remarkably healthy for this time of year.
5,929 — Cook's career rushing total. He passed Chuck Foreman for third place in team history and trails Robert Smith by 889 yards. Over the last two games, Cook is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The only game the Vikings have won this season without any doubt about the outcome during the fourth quarter was the opener against Green Bay, a 23-7 victory that the Packers have the opportunity to avenge on Sunday at Lambeau Field. The Packers have won three straight games to climb back into legitimate contention for the playoffs.
The Vikings lead San Francisco by one game for the No. 2 seed. They would lose a tiebreaker to the 49ers, who have won eight straight games and finish the season at Las Vegas and against Arizona.
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