Maybe you heard, they were pretty lucky last season

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

Years ago, Minnesota Vikings fans could have enjoyed their 13-win season in peace.

For better or worse, everyone is smarter now when it comes to analyzing football. We understand that point differential can help predict future performance. Close wins are a bit fluky. Any advanced stat you want is a click away. We get that just because a team won 13 games, that doesn’t mean it was dominant.

Vikings fans were reminded constantly last season that their team wasn’t as good as its 13-4 record. They were an unbelievable 11-0 in regular-season games decided by eight points or less, including a record-setting comeback against the Indianapolis Colts when they trailed 33-0 at halftime. They had a minus-3 point differential, which is unfathomable for a team that was nine games over .500. No other 12-win team in NFL history was outscored over the season, much less a 13-win team. Minnesota ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. In FO’s estimated wins metric, the Vikings profiled as a 6.3-win team.

It had to be exhausting for Vikings fans. The Vikings kept winning games, and social media kept reminding them their team was a fraud.

There were a lot of victory laps when the Vikings lost at home to the New York Giants in a wild-card playoff game. All the talk of the Vikings being lucky seemed to be justified.

Downgrading the 2022 Vikings and their accomplishments isn’t fair — wins and losses still should matter, and there’s something to be said about the Vikings having the mental toughness to win so many close games — but it is relevant to the 2023 team. It’s not like we can start with a 13-4 record as the foundation for predicting what the Vikings will be this season.

Minnesota didn’t have a great offseason. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, receiver Adam Thielen, cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebacker Eric Kendricks got paid elsewhere in free agency. The team traded pass rusher Za’Darius Smith, who had 10 sacks last season, for very little and then cut running back Dalvin Cook. Some of those veterans are nearing the end of their careers, but it’s still a lot to lose in one offseason.

The Vikings still have Justin Jefferson, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Kirk Cousins is a competent quarterback. Alexander Mattison and rookie Jordan Addison are intriguing replacements for Cook and Thielen. The defense might get better just by hiring new coordinator Brian Flores.

Justin Jefferson won NFL Offensive Player of the Year last season. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Justin Jefferson won NFL Offensive Player of the Year last season. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

The Vikings should be proud of last season. The wins were thrilling. The comeback against the Colts has a place in NFL history. Only one other Vikings team ever topped the 13 wins the 2022 team collected. The division title was their first since 2017. Jefferson is one of the most thrilling players in the sport and it was good to see him recognized as the best receiver in football. It was a fun, historic season for the Vikings.

It’s just going to be hard to do it again this season.

Offseason grade

The Vikings lost more than they gained. The Cleveland Browns thought defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson was worth $57 million over four years. The defense also lost cornerback Patrick Peterson and linebacker Eric Kendricks, a couple of solid veterans. Receiver Adam Thielen is on the decline, but it was a bummer seeing his feel-good story with Minnesota end when he signed with the Carolina Panthers. Pass rusher Za’Darius Smith was traded to the Browns and the Vikings got a couple of late-round pick swaps in return. Running back Dalvin Cook’s strong run with the Vikings ended when he was cut. The big signing was tight end Josh Oliver at $21 million over three years, which seemed like a lot. Oliver is a good in-line blocker, and the Vikings thought that’s worth $7 million a year. Cornerback Byron Murphy and defensive end Marcus Davenport were signed and could pay off. Drafting receiver Jordan Addison in the first round was wise but he was the only top-100 pick the team had. It’s hard to feel like the Vikings are better, though maybe there’s something to be said about making the roster younger.

Grade: D+

Quarterback report

It’s not worth debating Kirk Cousins anymore. Those who believe he stinks will never be convinced otherwise, unless he wins a Super Bowl. Those who think he has been pretty good wonder why his comeback wins are ignored and his stats are dismissed as something frivolous, like plenty of yards and touchdowns don’t help the Vikings. Whatever you think about Cousins, it’s not changing.

BetMGM odds breakdown

Sportsbooks are smart and they don’t give away money. They have all those advanced stats available too. The Vikings’ win total is 8.5 at BetMGM, which is 4.5 wins short of their total from last season. Bettors do like the over, which is up to -140 odds. However, the Vikings to not make the playoffs is -140 (yes on the playoffs is +115). I don’t think it’s fair to act like the Vikings had nothing to do with their 13 wins last season, but it’s hard to deny the stats. I lean to the under on 8.5 wins at +115 odds.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Opinions vary on Alexander Mattison, who is expected to be Minnesota’s featured back for 2023. Yahoo drafters have pushed his ADP into the 70 range; he’s falling a round or two later on some other sites.

“Mattison’s play the last two years has been ordinary. He checks in at 3.7 yards per carry since 2021, and last year he managed a scant 91 receiving yards on 18 targets. He always resembled a capable backup while Dalvin Cook was in Minnesota, but perhaps Mattison will be over his skis as a promoted starter.

“The Vikings offense isn’t necessarily a tailwind, despite the presence of superstar receiver Justin Jefferson. Kirk Cousins saw a dip in most of his efficiency stats last year, and the offensive line is considered below average entering 2023. I’m not dismissing Mattison’s fantasy value out of hand, but for me he’s a reactive pick — someone I need at my preferred cost — and not a proactive pick as we ready for the teeth of the draft season.”

Stat to remember

Justin Jefferson broke Randy Moss’ NFL record for most 100-yard games through a player’s first four NFL seasons. Moss had 23. Jefferson has 24. Also, Jefferson hasn’t even started his fourth NFL season. There are plenty of superlatives surrounding Jefferson’s amazing start to his career. Last season he led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards, becoming the youngest player to do so. He broke that record set by legend Don Hutson in 1936. His 4,825 yards through three seasons is the most in NFL history, 662 more than Moss in second place. The single-season record for receiving yards is 1,964 by Calvin Johnson (Jefferson’s 1,809 last season ranks sixth) and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Jefferson breaks that record.

Burning question

How much can Brian Flores turn around the defense?

Ed Donatell was a constant target of criticism last season, and then the Vikings defense looked awful in a wild-card playoff loss to the Giants. Donatell was unsurprisingly fired, and replaced by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. Donatell’s scheme was passive and static, and Flores promises more blitzing and multiple looks.

“I’m aggressive by nature, that’s something that I believe in,” Flores said when he was introduced to the media, via Fox 9. “I like to be aggressive, not reckless. There’s a method to the madness, there’s a rhyme and reason. … It’s vital to championship football.”

Flores’ scheme should be better and he’ll help clean up some of the miscommunication and confusion that doomed the Vikings’ pass defense last season. But there’s a talent question. The Vikings finished 31st in yards allowed last season and it wasn’t all coaching. Some draft misses have hurt the secondary. Danielle Hunter is a good pass rusher but the Vikings need more help in the front seven. Don’t expect Flores to be a miracle worker.

Best-case scenario

The Vikings did win 13 games, after all. No matter how fluky it was, it’s very hard to beat 13 NFL opponents in a season. Maybe there’s something to be said about being able to win all of those close games. The offense should be fine as long as Justin Jefferson is healthy, and maybe Brian Flores is a huge upgrade to the defense. It’s not that hard to buy the Vikings winning the NFC North again.

Nightmare scenario

We know regression is coming for the Vikings. Their record in close games isn’t going to repeat, and maybe the injury luck won’t hold either (Minnesota was one of the healthiest teams in the NFL last season). You can see the holes in the roster, especially on defense. The Vikings shouldn’t be so bad they finish in last in the NFC North, but it could happen. Maybe a very poor season leads to the Vikings figuring their way out of the Kirk Cousins era.

The crystal ball says …

The Vikings aren’t going 13-4 again. That seems safe to predict. But how far will they slip? A rough offseason doesn’t help. But last season’s Vikings team wasn’t bad. They just weren’t as good as their record. Minnesota will be solid on offense, the defense will be better due to Flores and they’ll be in playoff contention most of the season. Making the playoffs, and maybe even winning the division, will come down to catching a few breaks. The Vikings just need to hope they didn’t use up all their luck last season.

Other team previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

19. New England Patriots

18. New York Giants

17. Minnesota Vikings

16. New Orleans Saints

15. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Cleveland Browns

13. Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

11. Seattle Seahawks

10. Baltimore Ravens

9. Miami Dolphins

8. New York Jets

7. Detroit Lions

6. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

4. Buffalo Bills

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Philadelphia Eagles

1. Kansas City Chiefs

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