Even after losing two games by a total of three points before their bye week, the Vikings will return from a week off holding one of the wild-card playoff spots in a mediocre NFC. Before they navigate a five-game finish that begins with two AFC road matchups and ends with three division games, they have a series of big decisions to make.
The most important is at quarterback, where coach Kevin O'Connell said the Vikings will "look at everything" following Joshua Dobbs' four interceptions in last Monday's loss to the Bears. But the Vikings also have issues to sort out with their run game, and will pair Justin Jefferson with a new quarterback for the first time in his career.
As the Vikings prepare for their final five games in hopes of reaching the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2008-09, here's a look at five big questions surrounding the team:
1. What happens at QB?
When the Vikings won their first two games with Dobbs, after Kirk Cousins tore his right Achilles tendon and Jaren Hall sustained a concussion, it appeared they might have sidestepped the kind of quarterbacking crisis that can throw a season off course. Dobbs' five interceptions in two games reopened the discussion before the bye week, when O'Connell said the Vikings would evaluate Nick Mullens and Jaren Hall as possibilities alongside Dobbs.
Of the three QBs on the roster, Mullens has the most experience in the offense, and O'Connell said the Vikings could play him knowing he has "great comfort" with the details of the scheme, from protection calls to drop-back footwork and route combinations. Heading into the weekend, though, it appeared Dobbs could get a chance to keep the job for the Raiders game and show he can reduce turnovers while working through his reads more efficiently.
2. How will Jefferson fare with a new QB?
The Vikings expect the wide receiver will be ready for a full week of practice after the bye, and in place to return from a seven-game absence on Dec. 10 against the Raiders. His return to the lineup will provide the kind of talent injection the Vikings couldn't get elsewhere, but it's worth wondering how Jefferson, who has caught all but six passes in his career from Kirk Cousins, will mesh with a new quarterback. His presence alone could open things up for Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson as defenses figure to roll coverage toward Jefferson again. If Dobbs does keep the job, his mobility could stress defenses who already have to worry about Jefferson. The Vikings' premium on accuracy and timing, though, becomes even more important when it means giving Jefferson a chance to run after the catch.
O'Connell said Tuesday the Vikings had built in some practice snaps for Dobbs, Mullens and Hall to throw to Jefferson and work against some of the looks the Vikings expect they'll get from defenses in his return. Few players in the NFL affect as many things — from their offense's game plan and a defense's strategy — as Jefferson does, and O'Connell indicated the Vikings want their next QB to maximize Jefferson as much as possible.
"We're going to make sure that whoever's playing quarterback is aware and understands the intent behind plays, where either Justin is the primary [receiver] or based upon coverage, based upon the defensive look, how to quickly and efficiently get to the right place to go with the football," O'Connell said. "Because in the end, that's what the NFL passing game is about, rhythm, timing — understanding that the defense can and will take some things away — but progressing that rhythm and trying to find the voids and vacancies, and zone or premier matchups and man coverage."
3. How will the RB position shake out?
The Vikings gave Alexander Mattison 31 snaps to Ty Chandler's 18 against the Bears, and they still seem to view Mattison as their primary back. Aside from his fumble against the Broncos, he's been more efficient the past two weeks, gaining 133 yards on 28 carries against Denver and Chicago. It seems he will continue to receive a larger share of snaps than Chandler, unless his fumbling issues necessitate a bigger change.
"Early on in the [Bears] game we had some missed targets, some free hitters here and there. Alex was able to make a couple of those even go for some significant yardage," O'Connell said. "Other times we did handle movement well and had an all-11 feel to some [runs] there. [It's] one of those scenarios where I thought both of those guys showed what they bring to the table. We wanted to find ways to get Ty some extra touches on third down or potentially in the screen game. It didn't always equal premier execution and/or significant gains, but we want to continue to build with both players as a significant 1-2 punch and guys we feel like we can move the football with running the ball."
4. Will reinforcements arrive on defense?
The Vikings have shortened their bench on defense after injuries to players such as Marcus Davenport, Jordan Hicks and Akayleb Evans, playing 10 players for more than 60% of their snaps on Monday night against the Bears while keeping three safeties — Josh Metellus, Camryn Bynum and Harrison Smith — on the field for every snap. Evans could return from a calf injury after the bye to play against the Raiders, giving the Vikings more depth in their defensive backfield after rookie Mekhi Blackmon played all but four snaps against the Bears. The prospects for Hicks and Davenport could be dicier after surgeries for both players, though; Hicks would need to regain strength after an operation to deal with concerns of compartment syndrome in his right leg, while Davenport had a tightrope procedure after his high ankle sprain.
The Vikings have put together an impressive defensive showing all season, and will face a pair of backup quarterbacks (Aidan O'Connell and Jake Browning) before three NFC North games to close the season. They can't afford many more injuries on defense, though, given how much they have already asked several players to stretch.
5. How do the Vikings match up against the Lions and Packers?
The Vikings' loss to the Bears was their first this season in the NFC North; their playoff prospects will likely be determined by how they handle the second, and decidedly more difficult, half of their division matchups. They face the Lions twice in three weeks, with a New Year's Eve home game against the Packers in between the Lions games.