In his weekly media availability last Thursday, Justin Jefferson brought up — unprompted — the social media chatter he'd received about how the Vikings should be looking toward next year after an 0-3 start.
"I'm tired of people saying that we're looking into next season, or all of the trades and stuff like that," he said last week. "We're focused still on this season. We have a lot more games to go, and we have a lot more things to accomplish this season. We still have the same goal as we had before the season. We just need to fix a few things, and I feel like we'll be back on track."
Three days later, the Vikings won for the first time this season against Carolina, ending the first losing streak of Kevin O'Connell's tenure as head coach and keeping the Vikings from an 0-4 start before a home game against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
Did it signify the Vikings are still capable of making a run this season? That question will be easier to answer by the end of this month.
To be clear, the Vikings haven't entertained any notion of packing it in for 2023. Their first division game doesn't come until next week, and the fact that they'd lost three games by a collective 13 points, while turning the ball over nine times in that stretch, led people in the organization to believe they weren't far from stringing together wins if they could eliminate their mistakes. The notion of trading Jefferson for a package of first-round picks seems virtually out of the question, and even the idea of asking Kirk Cousins to waive his no-trade clause for a midseason deal doesn't seem anywhere close to the team's current thinking. The next four games, though, will have plenty to say about whether the Vikings' slow start was merely an unfortunate stretch or an indicator of larger issues.
The Vikings will play a late-afternoon game against the Chiefs, whose spotlight is even brighter than usual because of Travis Kelce's acquaintance (relationship? friendship? publicity-stirring association?) with Taylor Swift. In matters more germane to football, the Vikings will face reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes for the first time, in a stern test of whether the improvement their defense showed Sunday can continue.
Their home game after that is a Monday night matchup with the undefeated 49ers on Oct. 23, and between those two games and after, the Vikings have division road trips to Chicago and Green Bay. By the time they reach the trade deadline, they could be anywhere from a division contender that owns some impressive wins to an also-ran that's forced to entertain big questions about the future. The next four games seem like a more accurate measure of where they fall on that spectrum than a road victory over a winless Panthers team where the Vikings turned the ball over twice more deep in opposing territory.
The Vikings certainly have areas they can point to as evidence of improvement. They've run for 265 yards in the past two weeks after posting just 69 in the first two games, as their offensive line has blocked more effectively for Alexander Mattison and Cam Akers. They sacked Bryce Young five times in the second half of a comeback victory on Sunday, when the Vikings allowed Carolina to score just three points without the help of a turnover. Their defensive front seemed invigorated by the return of Marcus Davenport on Sunday, and their offense can always count on Jefferson's ability to come up with a big play in spite of unceasing attention from defenses.
For them to turn any of it into the kind of win streak that puts them back in the playoff race and keeps the public's focus solely on this season, though, they'll have to reduce the pernicious turnovers. Their defense will have to replicate Sunday's performance against an offense more accomplished than the Panthers' group, and they'll have to sustain drives better than they have through four weeks, when they've converted just 37% of their third downs.
At the moment, the Vikings are riding the energy of a win that came with the kind of commanding defensive performance they haven't produced very often in recent years. They'll have a better answer by the end of the month if their faith in their current group is well placed.