Whenever you hear Aerosmith’s “Livin’ On The Edge,” thoughts of the Minnesota Vikings may come to mind.
“You can’t help yourself from falling. …”
After the Vikings accomplished a unique feat in 2022 – fashioning an NFL record 11-0 mark in one-score games – losing by three points in the home opener to Tampa Bay was a stunner to the players. Justin Jefferson said that he and his teammates certainly expected a different result.
“We felt like we could have and should have won that game,” Jefferson said.
Last season, the Vikings either showed the mettle of a team that knew how to win close games, or they were just fortunate. Critics of the 13-win squad jumped on the latter narrative after Minnesota lost to the New York Giants by seven points at home in the NFC Wild Card game, confirming that they knew all along the Vikings couldn’t survive after so many unique narrow escapes.
According to the naysayers, the Vikings’ luck ran out, and it did not return for the first game of the 2023 regular season, either. In a matchup where Minnesota was favored by 4.5 points on Caesars Sportsbook, Tampa Bay pulled off the road upset, and the loss still stung Jefferson midweek after the defeat.
“I hate losing,” he said. “I want to be on that winning stage, celebrating with my teammates.”
Now the question becomes how often the Vikings can be on that winning stage this season. Good teams beat who they are supposed to beat, and Minnesota melted instead of finishing the job, committing three crucial turnovers.
Kirk Cousins lost two fumbles and threw an interception near the goal line in the first half. After last year and how the opener turned out, he reflected on how thin the line can be between a loss and a win for his team, yet he also believed that brighter times could be ahead.
“We have to protect the football, and if you’re scoring points and you’re protecting the football, the opposite tends to happen. You tend to win. You tend to, over the long haul, have a pretty good record. That’s what we’ll be chasing,” Cousins said.
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Looking further past Thursday night’s matchup with the Eagles, the concern is whether the Vikings will end up on the wrong side of too many close games in 2023. Not only are they widely regarded as a likely finisher behind the rising Detroit Lions in the NFC North, but the Green Bay Packers also look like a threat to finish ahead of them and potentially keep the Vikings out of the playoffs.
However, head coach Kevin O’Connell has strong faith in his team to perform better over the longer term.
“I’ve got nothing but confidence in our football team and maybe even more so after watching the tape, knowing how close things were to being maybe a different result,” he said.
Cousins, who is in the final year of his contract and has a 1-3 career playoff record, was openly upset on the sidelines after the interception. Losing at home to a perceived inferior opponent was no way to start the new season after how last year ended.
“There’s no question that we would’ve loved to finish that drive with a touchdown, but always want him to be aggressive, play what he sees, and he did a lot of really good things yesterday as well to help us stay in the football game, despite the turnovers,” O‘Connell said.
The 35-year-old quarterback did pass for 344 yards, but it was evident that this Minnesota team just may not be capable of successfully dodging defeats as it did last season. The Vikings’ passing game still looked potent enough, but the defense did not force any Tampa Bay turnovers against the highest-profile journeyman in the league, Baker Mayfield.
“Turnover margin will always be a critical stat when it comes to winning football games. We lost the turnover margin badly, and you don’t have to look too much further than that,” Cousins said.
In 2022, Minnesota was eighth in the NFL with 25 takeaways, but they also had 23 giveaways, so the plus-2 turnover differential wasn’t too impressive. The Vikings ranked 13th in that department.
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In the NFL, experienced observers always caution about overreacting to one game. After seeing the season start with a disappointment that seemed to be a sequel to last year’s playoff finish, though, O’Connell said he is not surprised by how the team is being perceived externally.
“I totally understand that reaction, especially with the excitement building for hopefully this football team,” he said.
At the same time, though, O’Connell indicated that he and his staff are ready to ensure that similar issues don’t ruin the rest of the season.
“You don’t want to underreact to anything because it’s our job to acknowledge the truth, acknowledge exactly what happened,” he said.
Cousins added that he believes the offense can still spur Minnesota to more winning in the weeks ahead.
“I think the yards reflect potential in the offense. The potential for being a great offense. The explosiveness is there,” Cousins said.
However, the Vikings rushed for only 41 yards in their first game without Dalvin Cook on the roster. Losing center Garrett Bradbury to a back injury and left tackle Christian Darrisaw working through an ankle injury did not help.
Jefferson’s final line looked good again, with nine receptions for 150 yards, but he had only two catches for 12 yards in the second half. Did the Buccaneers devise a plan for containing Jefferson that future opponents can copy?
The superstar WR said he was open often enough during the second half and wasn’t being shut down.
“I didn’t feel like they took me out of the game. Just the ball didn’t come my way,” Jefferson said.
There was a narrative floating around the Twin Cities after the Tampa Bay loss that maybe we were seeing the “Same Old Vikings.” But O’Connell stressed that his team was still close to pulling out a win, and it can get back on the right side of the scoreboard in tight games going forward.
“Our players just need to be a little bit cleaner in their execution and give ourselves a little bit better chance to not set ourselves behind the eight ball,” he said.
Cousins did not put the opening loss in a more important light than other possible defeats he may have to consider during the rest of the season. He is still focused on longer-term goals.
“I have never been in here and not felt urgencies, so I think regardless of the record, there is always urgency,” he said. “I remember last year, say we were 10-2, I felt like it was 2-10 just in terms of the urgency you felt in here.
“You just feel this need to win, to close the division out to get the best seed you can to get home field. So, even when things are rolling, you just feel that you’ve got to go get that next thing that is out there.”
Vikings fans and the media are still waiting for Cousins to show he can ultimately take his team into true NFC contention. If he doesn’t do so this season, it could be the end of an era where the teams he piloted ultimately never came close to living up to expectations.
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Yet Cousins still has goals of taking the Vikings to heights they last visited in 2017, the year before he became the starter in Minnesota. Seven seasons ago, the Vikings played in the NFC Championship Game.
“I think you always have a desire to go out and play well to prove yourself, to earn it,” he said. “I think that I’ve never felt entitled taking the field, so I kind of always feel like I have to go out and prove it.”
However, climbing to the verge of a Super Bowl berth seems like a long shot right now. In the next few weeks, the Vikings will have to demonstrate that living dangerously just isn’t acceptable as a potential path to success.