Are the close wins a bug or a feature?
Since the start of the 2021 season, the Vikings have played 27 regular season games. 21 of them – 13 wins, eight losses – have been decided by one point.
This year, the Vikings are 7-0 in one-score games, having staged double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks to stun crowds in Washington and Buffalo the past two weeks. These close wins, and consequently the lack of lopsided victories, are often cited by those who are unsure they are as good as their 8-1 record suggests.
Close games, the argument goes, are subject to chance, where the bounce of a ball or a split-section action can have a major impact on the final outcome. Over time, a team that wins a series of close games one season is not statistically likely to do so every year.
However, the teams must try; it’s why the Vikings hold a “situational champions” meeting every week, and why other teams use a similar approach to help players understand how to handle chaotic end situations. In 2022, it’s simply a way of doing business when tight ends and fourth-quarter comebacks are more common than ever.
This season, 68 games have been decided by one touchdown or less – a record through 10 weeks of the regular season, according to the NFL. When the 49ers rallied to beat the Chargers Sunday night, their victory was the 47th this season in which a team rallied to win or tie after trailing in the fourth quarter; the number tied the 2016 season for the most in NFL history through 10 weeks of a season.
“I just know that as we prepare for the opponents that we face every week, you just feel that there are impact players and really good coaching that challenges offenses and defensive schemes,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said. “It’s hard to say if that directly has an impact on why the games are so close. I just know that the margin of error is so thin between good plays and catastrophically bad plays, to be honest with you, that can change the entire outcome of games. …
“It’s hard to just completely distance yourself from an opponent and make every play go your way for four quarters. It just works, even though that’s what we’re striving for and trying to have our own perfect level of execution, I think that’s just how the game is today, it’s hard to get past and you just have to be ready for it to be close at the end.”
The Vikings have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter by 43 points this season; only the Jets (58 points) have a greater scoring margin in the fourth quarter. The Vikings are tied with the Bills and the Bears for the most fourth-quarter interceptions (six), and Patrick Peterson’s second interception of Josh Allen on Sunday was one of two in overtime around the league this year.
So is it sustainable? Has Viking, with its emphasis on situational football in meetings and practices, successfully “hacked” close matches? It’s hard to tell after half a season, and if the Vikings keep up this kind of winning percentage in close games over several seasons, they’ll be defying historical precedent in the process.
But in a year where close games and comebacks are more common than ever, the fact that the Vikings are involved in so many one-score games seems less of a sign of weakness and more of a fact of the NFL. The question of whether future teams can maintain these results isn’t really the 2022 Vikings’ concern. Their job now is to see if they can be made the team, whether by merit, luck or a combination of the two, that can win everyone close to them this year. Their experience in such moments seems to make O’Connell believe they can.
“I think some of these games early in the season, and as we’ve grown as a football team, where we’ve been able to make it happen, either just a deficit in the fourth quarter, or maybe it’s a 10-point deficit, [we were] trusting different phases of our football team and understanding how everything comes together in those critical moments,” O’Connell said Monday. “I think we play off each other well and I think our guys really respond well to each other. It’s a testament to their experience in those situations this year and also to our ability to get our best players and guys to be at their best when they’re required.”