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Why the Minnesota Vikings Are the NFL's Ultimate Fool's Gold Team

Brad Gagnon@@Brad_GagnonFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 4, 2023

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 01: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings is tackled Adrian Amos #31 of the Green Bay Packers during the first quarter by at Lambeau Field on January 01, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Following an ugly loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings can no longer land the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But it's a shame Minnesota will likely be guaranteed home-field advantage for at least two playoff games because the NFC North champions might be the worst 12-4 team in NFL history.

The Vikings have made a season out of beating weak teams by tiny margins while being exposed by superior teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys and even the Detroit Lions and Packers within the division.

The fact that they're 11-0 in one-score games is a testament to their ability to perform in high-pressure situations and grind out victories, but that is also almost certainly aberrational, and regression to the mean is inevitable—whether it be this weekend against a rival Chicago Bears team looking to play spoiler, in the playoffs or next fall.

Regardless of how they go out, though, the Vikings will go out. Their most likely wild-card opponent is the New York Giants, who they barely beat at home on Christmas Eve. They won by a field goal after the Giants negated one Kirk Cousins interception with a penalty and dropped another, and after benefiting from two Giants turnovers inside the Minnesota 40-yard line as well as a brutal Richie James dropped pass on a key fourth-quarter third down.

Those breaks have seemingly gone Minnesota's way all season, which is why the law of averages is not on the team's side.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 01: Head coach Kevin O'Connell of the Minnesota Vikings watches action prior to a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on January 01, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When they're bad, though, they're truly bad. The legendarily inconsistent Cousins committed four turnovers as the Vikings didn't look to be in the same league as the then-sub-.500 Packers on Sunday in Green Bay. Justin Jefferson might be the league's most productive receiver, but he caught just one pass on five targets in that affair, and he also disappeared when Dallas demolished the Vikes in a key matchup six weeks earlier.

It has become obvious that if you can limit the Cousins-Jefferson connection, you can shut down a Vikings team that has only two other Pro Bowlers (linebacker Za'Darius Smith and tight end T.J. Hockenson) at regular positions. Good teams should be capable of doing that, and after Chicago in Week 18, Minnesota won't have the luxury of playing non-good teams.

Considering their record, it's incredible the Vikings have allowed 19 more points than they've scored. Only a dozen NFL teams have worse scoring margins on the season, which is a major reason Football Outsiders ranks them as the fifth-worst team in the league in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).

In that widely respected and all-encompassing advanced metric, the Arizona Cardinals and the Bears are the only NFC teams that have performed worse than Minnesota in 2022.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 01: Robert Tonyan #85 of the Green Bay Packers catches a pass for a touchdown in front of Josh Metellus #44 of the Minnesota Vikings during a game at Lambeau Field on January 01, 2023 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Vikings 41-17. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Unless they beat the Bears by 19 or more points in Week 18, the 2022 Vikings will become the first team in NFL history to win 12-plus games with a negative scoring margin. Only three other teams have hit the 12-win mark with margins below plus-50, and those three teams won a combined one playoff game. None came close to the Super Bowl. Only two other teams have won more than 10 games with negative scoring margins, but Minnesota might win 13!

While it's easy to get excited about a team that continually wins thrilling games, and it's easy to enjoy a blinged-out Cousins dancing shirtless on the team plane, it's important to remember—especially if you might be compelled to make some (legal) wagers on Kevin O'Connell's squad—that the Minnesota Vikings are not just worse than their strong record, but also worse than the majority of NFL teams across the board.

They deserve the NFC North crown because they found ways to win when the Packers didn't, and because the punchy Lions also have their flaws. But in most other campaigns, similar overall output would have the Vikings fighting for a playoff spot in the best-case scenario.

Based on their overall performance, Football Outsiders estimates they should be 6-10 rather than 12-4. In that scenario, their season would be over.

The league's second-worst scoring defense has been saved by the streaky Cousins, while the whole group has been bailed out by well-timed, uncharacteristic bad fortune from opponents and 61-yard walk-off field goals and miraculous comebacks,

How many times can lightning strike in the same spot? The Vikings and their fans likely have their answer, but the fluky ride has earned them a strange division title and at least one home playoff game.

Just don't expect to see them in action come late January.