Kevin O'Connell arrived at the Vikings facility on Wednesday already planning for the afternoon practice — the team's first full session in nearly two weeks — to be a hard day of work in full pads. The messages he received from several of the team's veterans only confirmed that approach.
"I had three or four of our guys say, 'Today is a big day,' before I even mentioned to our guys in the team meeting about the importance of having a great practice today and preparation," O'Connell said Wednesday. "So they get it. They understand, some of our veterans that have been through successful seasons, really what lies ahead."
As soon as Sunday, the Vikings could ensure one of the things that lies ahead is their first home playoff game since the Minneapolis Miracle. A win over the Jets, and a Lions loss to the Jaguars, would give the Vikings their first NFC North title since the 2017 season, making them one of seven teams in the Super Bowl era to clinch their division with five games to go. Otherwise, they could wrap up the division the following Sunday with a win at Detroit.
Their felicitous 9-2 start has put the Vikings in position to balance a basket of competing priorities as the calendar turns to December. Players and coaches in their first year together still speak of a need for on-field work, to tune up an offense ranked 12th in the league in points and improve a defense ranked 21st.
The Vikings, at the same time, aim to preserve a roster that's been only marginally affected by injury to this point. Clinching early could allow coaches to shift snaps from veterans who have shouldered a heavy workload to unproven young players whose time could come in the playoffs, and yet, an inviting December schedule could give the Vikings a chance to snatch the NFC's No. 1 seed (and its only first-round bye) from the Eagles.
O'Connell was the Rams' offensive coordinator a year ago when the team ended a three-game losing streak on the first Sunday of December and won nine of its final 10 games on the way to a Super Bowl LVI victory. Now in charge of it all for the first time in Minnesota, he's trying to get to the postseason with a team that's both sharp and fresh.
"The best teams in this league, I believe, improve during stretches like this — three home games in a row leading into December — and now we're going to be in December, and that's when you want to play your best football," O'Connell said. "You want to feel like you've kind of identified the strengths of your team and played to those, while also trying to always improve in areas where — there's obviously going to be areas of improvement for any football team as this 17-week grind kicks forward and continues to go."
December losses pile up
In recent years, the stretch runs have been where the Vikings cost themselves a playoff spot.
Since they clinched the NFC North title in 2017, the Vikings are 9-12 in December and January regular-season games. They missed the playoffs with three-loss Decembers in 2018 and 2020. In 2019, December losses to the Seahawks and Packers cost the Vikings a chance to overtake Green Bay for the NFC North title; once they were locked in to a wild-card spot, they rested starters in a season-ending loss to the Bears. Last year, three losses in December and January, including a defeat against the previously winless Lions, cost them a postseason bid.
It seemed, both in playoff losses after the 2017 and 2019 seasons and the stretch runs in non-playoff years, that player fatigue had caught up to the Vikings. Former coach Mike Zimmer changed the Vikings' practice schedule late last season, turning several Wednesday practices into walk-throughs after the team's strength and athletic training staffs presented him with GPS data showing players needed a break.
This year, the Vikings held most of their starters out of preseason games after a lighter spring and summer schedule than they'd used in the past. Wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has played every game this season after missing 11 games the past three seasons, said he feels similar this year to how he's felt in past seasons, though he said the Vikings are more process-driven and collaborative in managing player fatigue than they've been in the past.
The team's schedule includes recovery times in between meetings and practice, Thielen said. On certain days, the Vikings' medical staff leaves tablets in the locker room for players to fill out brief surveys about their injuries and stress levels.
"I think it's paying off in maybe the little injuries — maybe not as many of those throughout the season," Thielen said.
That could be especially true given how short of a bench the Vikings have used this season. They've had six players on the field for at least 80% of their defensive snaps and an additional three on the field at least 60% of the time.
Keeping an eye on workloads
One of those players who's still above 60%, cornerback Cameron Dantzler, could return next week from injured reserve after sustaining an ankle injury on Nov. 7 against Washington. He had played 93.1% of the Vikings' defensive snaps before he was injured. Defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, who could return on Sunday from the calf injury that's cost him four games, had played 68.8% of the Vikings' snaps before he was hurt against Arizona.
Of the six defenders who've been on the field at least 80% of the time, four — Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith, Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks — are in at least their eighth seasons.
O'Connell said putting players in "job-specific" roles can help reduce their workloads; it's possible the approach could also create situational roles for players like rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah and third-year safety Josh Metellus, whom O'Connell said he wants to put on the field more frequently.
If the Vikings are to make a deep run like the one the Rams did last year, it's likely they'll need an important contribution along the way from a young player with fresh legs. They'll also need precision from a veteran roster that has turned success in high-stress moments into the possibility of a historically quick NFC North title clinch.
It will be up to O'Connell to calibrate it all.
"You can demand a lot out of a football team that has great leadership and player ownership," he said, "because part of player ownership is not just, 'Hey, we get a chance to make decisions and be a part of that.' It's making the right decisions in conjunction with what will help us win. That doesn't always mean the easier thing or taking the path of the least resistance."