By now, perhaps you've reached a strange kind of peace with it all: the quickening pace of the game, the tactics that get recalibrated after every play changes the odds like each card dealt at a blackjack table. The set of best practices shouted by fans in every stadium or repeated on every broadcast like a preflight safety briefing, about when to step out of bounds, when it's OK to work the middle of the field, when to spike the ball.
The cautious glances at the stadium scoreboard or corner-of-the-screen graphic displaying the game clock and timeouts remaining. The quick calculations about how much time you need to rewrite the first few sentences of your game story and slip in key information before deadline hits.
(That last clause might describe a unique kind of stressor, but hey, we all experience the Vikings' weekly melodramas differently.)
Since the start of the 2021 season, no team in the NFL has played more close games than the Vikings. Thirty-six of their 46 regular-season or postseason games have been decided by one score, six more than any other team in the NFL. Only four other teams — the Ravens, Chargers, Steelers and Raiders — have even had 30 in that time. Since the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer after a 2021 season with nine losses in 14 one-score games, they've played 29 games under Kevin O'Connell. Twenty-two of those have been decided by eight points or fewer.
They are 16-6 in one-score games under O'Connell, having set an NFL record with 11 one-score regular-season wins last season. But the Vikings approached their offseason with some skepticism they could stay that far ahead of the curve in close games, and after a seven-point playoff loss to the Giants in January, they've gone 5-5 in one-score games this season in part because of their penchant for turnovers that returned Sunday night.
Two of their three turnovers in a 21-20 loss to the Broncos came in the second half, when the Vikings had chances to build two-score leads that might have secured the game against a sputtering Broncos offense. Alexander Mattison's third-quarter fumble — the second the running back has lost this season — came at the Broncos 34, turning a drive where the Vikings might have gone up by 11 or 15 points into an opportunity for Denver to cut the lead to five. Then Josey Jewell beat Ty Chandler's block and hit Joshua Dobbs as he threw, forcing a Ja'Quan McMillian pick that helped Denver get within two.
"We lost that turnover battle. It should be something that we're going to talk about; we have talked about [it], and clearly, it's a winning and losing stat in this league," O'Connell said. "No matter what you do, every other play in the game, you're just setting yourself behind and have to overcome even if you do have the lead."
The Vikings have lost by a total of 10 points in the three games where they've turned the ball over at least three times this season, and they have lost the turnover battle in all five of their one-score losses. O'Connell has pointed out at times this season how the Vikings can take some confidence from the fact they're still within a few points of winning games even on the days when they turn the ball over. At the same time, few things have seemed as galling to the coach as the turnovers this season.
He emphasized situational mastery in all of the Vikings' one-score wins last season, and the Vikings had a plus-nine turnover margin in their 12 close games last year. This year, they've given the ball away in those situations, and they missed a pair of chances for takeaways on Sunday night when Jerry Jeudy knocked an interception out of Josh Metellus' hands before a Wil Lutz field goal and when the Samaje Perine fumble that Ivan Pace Jr. forced slipped out of bounds before the Vikings could recover it on the Broncos' final drive.
"It's really just a matter of finishing," safety Camryn Bynum said. "We played well the whole game. Not well enough. We didn't create any turnovers. So as a defense, we take pride in taking the ball. If we don't take the ball away, it makes it harder on the rest of the team. So like I said, we've got to finish at the end of the game and make that big play to get that stop to really win the game for us."
The NFL is fond of touting how frequently its teams play close games, which inherently have more suspense and ostensibly more entertainment value. In 2022, when the Vikings won 11 one-score games on their way to a 13-4 record, the league had more one-score games (164) than any other season in its history. The five seasons with the most one-score games have all come in the past eight years.
With one game to go in Week 11, the league isn't quite on pace to set another record in 2023, with its average of 8.09 one-score games per week lagging behind last year's 9.0 average. But in a larger sense, the forces of a hard salary cap, player movement and favorable rules for passing games are there to ensure parity in the standings and tense moments in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings know, as well as any team in the league, how much their success will hinge on their ability to win close games. They could point to a few plays — many of them turnovers — that might have staked them to an 8-3 or 9-2 record through 11 games, rather than the 6-5 mark that has them holding onto the NFC's final wild-card spot at the moment.
They won close games a year ago because of how they seemed to glide almost effortlessly through tense situations in the fourth quarter. This year, they've got a pedestrian record in another batch of close games because of the plays they haven't made.
(And the stress for fans watching those games, one gathers, doesn't produce the same kind of payoff.)
"Everyone does well when we take care of the football," Dobbs said. "As the person the ball goes through, it starts with me. It will resonate through the entire offense of taking care of the football."