The Vikings had come back from two double-digit deficits against the Lions, finishing off a 28-24 win with K.J. Osborn's touchdown to get to 2-1. At the news conference podium after the game, both their head coach and quarterback sounded alternately excited and unimpressed.
Kevin O'Connell praised the contributions from Osborn and Adam Thielen, then said he needs to do more to make sure teams can't deny Justin Jefferson the ball. O'Connell spoke glowingly about the Vikings' perseverance, then admitted they'd made things harder on themselves than necessary. Kirk Cousins recalled the details of his game-winning TD pass to Osborn, then said, "I think you can see today [the offense is] not where I want it to be."
The Vikings would no doubt rather be here, tamping down their exuberance after a comeback win, than where they were last year, telling anyone who would listen that they were better than their 0-2 start and 1-3 record through four games. Their schedule — with what amounts to a neutral-site game against the 1-2 Saints before a home game against the Bears — could give them enough runway to reach 4-1 before an Oct. 15 trip to Miami.
But it would be difficult for anyone to look at their performance through three games and think the Vikings have put themselves among the NFL's elite.
They rank 17th in the league in points and 18th in yards gained. Their defense is 10th in points allowed, but 30th out of 32 in yards allowed. Advanced statistics like Expected Points Added per Play and Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average rank them in the middle of the league. They followed a convincing home win over the NFC's No. 1 seed the past two years with a 17-point road defeat against the conference's last unbeaten team this year. They fell behind an improved Lions team, then escaped with a fourth quarter that featured two touchdown drives, a fourth-down stop and a game-sealing interception.
"To be down 14-0, it was a real big moment for our team to respond," O'Connell said. "Now we've got to know that we've done that, but [won't] necessarily need to do that if we're playing as well as we think we can moving forward."
While things haven't exactly been pretty for the Vikings yet, it's possible their offense will continue to improve, as a talented (and proven) group of players gets more time to work in O'Connell's system. Cousins said Sunday the Vikings still need more "time on task" in the offense, and O'Connell said he'll know the group has arrived when it's executing more consistently.
"Sometimes, for whatever reason, it can be one [player] or 11, there's just some indecisiveness of guys doing their jobs depending on the look," O'Connell said. "We're seeing some things that some other teams have done previously, just with our personnel and how they want to defend us, things that they want to feature against us. I think just the inventory of snaps, as you go throughout the season, there's some things that you'll maybe not need sideline discussions [to figure out how to execute]."
And in the first one-possession game they've played this year, their defense also got the stops it needed on Sunday, making a positive first impression in an area where the Vikings' failures a year ago might have cost Mike Zimmer his job.
And while the Vikings might not be a complete product yet, it's difficult to look around the NFC and see many teams that would qualify as one. The Eagles have been impressive, and the Packers have won two straight after their season-opening loss to the Vikings, but their offense still appears to be a work in progress. The Buccaneers have the NFL's top scoring defense, but have dealt with injuries on offense (and a suspension for Mike Evans) early in the year. The Rams — who won the Super Bowl a year ago — lost their opener 31-10 to the Bills before a pair of one-score wins over the Falcons and Cardinals.
There's work for the Vikings to do, but that's true of many of their conference competitors. If they're able to string together some early-season victories, they could put themselves in playoff position right around the time they hope to be at their best.
Do you have a big question about the Vikings? Email it to Ben Goessling, Andrew Krammer or Michael Rand, or tweet it to @AccessVikings and listen for answers on the Access Vikings podcast later this week.