The Vikings are learning that life on the brink of one-score games goes both ways

By now, you may have made a strange peace with it all: the quickening pace of the game, the tactics being recalibrated after each play, changing the odds like every card dealt at a blackjack table. A set of best practices, shouted by fans in every stadium or repeated on every broadcast as a pre-flight safety briefing, about when to go out of bounds, when it’s OK to work midfield, when to spike the ball.

The wary glances at the stadium scoreboard or the graphic in the corner of the screen showing the game clock and timeouts remaining. Quick calculations of how much time you need to rewrite the first few sentences of your game story and enter key information before the deadline is up.

(That last clause might describe a unique kind of stress, 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 the 2021 season with nine losses in 14 games by one score, they have played 29 games under Kevin O’Connell. Twenty-two of them were decided by eight points or less.

They are 16-6 in one-score games under O’Connell after setting an NFL record 11 regular-season one-score wins last season. But the Vikings approached their offseason with some skepticism that they could stay so far ahead of the curve in close games, and after a seven-point playoff loss to the Giants in January, they went 5-5 in one-score games this season in part because their propensity for turnovers that returned on Sunday night.

Two of their three touchdowns in a 21-20 loss to the Broncos came in the second half when the Vikings had chances to build a two-goal lead that could have clinched the game against a rattled Broncos offense. Alexander Matheson’s third-quarter fumble — the running back’s second loss this season — came at the Broncos 34, turning a drive where the Vikings could have been up by 11 or 15 points into an opportunity for Denver to cut the lead to five. Josey Jewell then beat Ty Chandler’s block and hit Joshua Dobbs as he was throwing, forcing a Ja’Quan McMillian pick that helped Denver get within two.

“We lost that turnover battle. It has to be something we’re going to talk about; we have talked [it]and clearly that’s an indicator of wins and losses in this league,” O’Connell said. “No matter what you do, every other play in the game, you just fall behind and have to overcome even if you have a lead.”

The Vikings have lost by a combined 10 points in the three games they’ve turned the ball over at least three times this season, and have lost the turnover battle in all five losses by one score. O’Connell pointed out at times this season how the Vikings can take some confidence from the fact that they’re still a few points away from winning games even on days when they pass the ball. At the same time, few things have seemed as unpleasant for the coach as the omissions this season.

He emphasized situational mastery in all of the Vikings’ one-goal wins last season, and the Vikings had plus-nine turnovers in their 12 close games last year. This year, they gave the ball away in those situations and missed two scoring chances Sunday night when Jerry Judy knocked a pass out of Josh Metellus’ hands before a Will Lutz field goal and when Samaje Perine fumbled an Ivan Pace Jr. forced out of bounds. , before the Vikings were able to recover it on the Broncos’ final drive.

“It’s really just a matter of finishing,” safety Camryn Bynum said. “We played well throughout the game. Not good enough. We didn’t create any gaps. So as a defense we pride ourselves on taking the ball away. If we don’t take the ball away, it makes it harder for 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 likes to tout how often its teams play close games, which inherently have more tension and seemingly more entertainment value. In 2022, when the Vikings won 11 games by one score en route to a 13-4 record, the league had more one-goal games (164) than any other season in its history. The five seasons with the most one-score games have come in the last eight years.

With one game remaining in Week 11, the league isn’t quite on pace to set a new record in 2023, averaging 8.09 one-goal games per week, trailing last year’s average of 9.0. But more broadly, the forces of a hard salary cap, player movement and favorable playoff rules are there to ensure parity in the standings and tense moments in the fourth quarter.

The Vikings know as much as any team in the league how much their success will depend on their ability to win close games. They could point to a few plays — many of them turnovers — that might have put them at 8-3 or 9-2 through 11 games, instead of the 6-5 mark that has them hanging on to the NFC’s last wild card place at the moment.

They won close games a year ago because they seemed to glide almost effortlessly through tight fourth-quarter situations. They have a pedestrian record in another batch of close games this year because of the plays they didn’t make.

(And the stress for fans watching those games, of course, doesn’t add up to the same kind of payoff.)

“Everybody does well when we take care of the football,” Dobbs said. “When the guy the ball goes through starts with me. It will resonate throughout the offense to take care of the football.”

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