It's a season no one saw coming.
The Minnesota Vikings are 8-1, riding a seven-game winning streak and holding a nearly insurmountable lead in the NFC North, with almost a half-season's worth of games left. How did they get here?
The streak has been filled with either come-from-behind or hang-on-until-the-end victories, highlighted by Sunday's crazy overtime win in Buffalo.
Even just looking at the last two minutes of regulation, plus overtime, the game was a roller coaster for fans.
With the exception of the first two games, most of the other seven games so far this season were filled with ups and downs that you can see by looking at the Vikings' play-by-play win probability ratings, according to ESPN.
Last year, the Vikings lost one close game after another. Why are they winning those games this season?
Star wide receiver Justin Jefferson continues to elevate his game despite dealing with greater coverage. The average separation between Jefferson and the closest defender shrunk to a season-low of 1.5 yards against Buffalo, and yet he produced a career-high 193 receiving yards and made a catch for the ages, with the game on the line. The gloves and arm sleeve he wore during the game are going to be on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been playing with increased aggressiveness in recent weeks, defying the knock against him in the past of checking down too often.
Cousins is betting on his receivers to make plays by throwing an increased share of passes into tight windows.
In addition to having star players shine, the Vikings are also benefiting greatly from cleaning up some problem areas that plagued them last season. In 2021, the Vikings ranked 26th in the average number of penalties called against them. Through nine games this season, the team has the third-best improvement in the league in the reduction of penalties.
Here are the 10 teams with lowest average penalties per game this season:
On the defensive side, new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell installed a 3-4 defensive scheme. The team signed pass rusher Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter returned from injured reserve, significantly improving the pass rush.
While the new defensive scheme hasn't been flawless, it has led to an increase in the number of turnovers created per game. That was quite evident in the game against Buffalo. Linebacker Eric Kendricks recovered a fumbled snap in the end zone for a touchdown and cornerback Patrick Peterson intercepted the Bills' Josh Allen twice in the end zone, including the game clincher.
The Vikings currently rank second in the NFL in average turnovers per game. Here are the top 10 teams:
A year ago, the team's big problem was their penchant for giving up points in the last two minutes of each half. This season, they've made improvement in average points allowed per quarter, especially in the second and fourth quarters.
Financial experts often point out that past results are no guarantee of future performance, but given the Vikings' play of late, their stock has risen. Currently atop the NFL Power Rankings, the team has a good chance to win each of its remaining games, based on Elo probability projections published by FiveThirtyEight.
A team's Elo rating going into a game depends on the outcome of previous games played, and the difference between two teams' ratings can be used to calculate odds of winning. For instance, the Vikings were given a less than 50% chance of winning road games against Philadelphia, Miami and Buffalo, and yet they won two of the three.
Based on the most recent Elo probability scores, the Vikings appear to have winnable games through the rest of the regular season.
Five of the final eight games will be played at U.S. Bank Stadium, where the Vikings are 4-0 so far this season, and they won't play outside on grass until a rematch with the Packers at Lambeau Field in January. Already a near-lock to make the playoffs, the Vikings just need to stay one game ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles in order to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Barring a total collapse, the Vikings are looking at a high playoff seed and seem poised to make a run. What could go wrong with that scenario, right? Past history painfully reminds fans that the kicking game can dash playoff hopes (see also: Gary Anderson in 1998 and Blair Walsh in 2016). And while there's still almost a half a season's worth of games to get things straightened out, placekicker Greg Joseph has struggled so far.
Sources: ESPN, NFL Next Gen Stats