Before we start, congratulations to Kirk Cousins on his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What a sentence! And, fine, it’s just a jersey—the one Cousins wore in the Minnesota Vikings’ record-breaking comeback win against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15—that has made it to Canton, but still. That fact alone should be enough to convince you that it’s been a weird year for the Vikings.
Minnesota is 13-4 and the no. 3 seed in the NFC, set to start the playoffs against the 6-seed Giants in the wild-card round on Sunday. Of the Vikings’ 13 wins, an NFL-record 11 of them came in one-score games, and eight of them required Cousins to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback, tying the NFL record for a single quarterback in a season. Those close wins, coupled with the fact that the Vikings’ four losses came by 17, 37, 11, and 24 points each, give Minnesota the distinction of being the first team in NFL history to win 13 games. and have a negative point differential. They have an NFL-best plus-78 point differential in the fourth quarter and are 30th, at minus-87, in quarters 1-3. Allegations of fraudulence are flying.
Historically speaking, those allegations seem well-founded. There have been five other teams to win at least nine one-possession games (meaning by eight points or fewer) since 2010. All five of those teams made the playoffs, but only one of them, the 2015 Broncos, who went 9-3 in one-score games during the regular season, won the Super Bowl. One champion in five might not sound like terrible odds, but the other four teams were dispatched from the postseason fairly quickly, with the 2012 Colts (9-1 in one-score games with four fourth-quarter comebacks by Andrew Luck) and 2016 Raiders. (who’d lost Derek Carr to injury just before the playoffs) both losing in the wild-card round. The 2018 Cowboys and 2019 Seahawks, the most recent teams to make chaos an art form, each lost in the divisional round.
Minnesota won only two games by more than eight points this season—back in Week 1 against the Packers, a team that much more recently, in Week 17, beat the Vikings by 24, and in Week 18, when they beat a Bears quarterbacked team Nathan Peterman and Tim Boyle by 16. “I think it just comes down to the fact that when we’ve lost lopsided games we directly contributed to those,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said after the Packers loss.
The unanswered question is how much the Vikings directly contributed to their wins. In a quest to try to understand this team, I went back through each of those 11 one-score wins and used win probability charting to determine the moment when those games swung most meaningfully.
Note: All win probability percentages are from ESPN’s model. Some embedded visuals come from NFLGameData.com, which offers animated views of how win probability changes throughout a game. Different models may have slightly different measurements of win probability at a specific time but more or less tell the same story.
Week 3: 28-24 vs. Detroit Lions
This is when the chaos began. Just after the two-minute warning, Detroit was up 24-21 with a win probability of 88.3 percent, with kicker Austin Seibert setting up for a 54-yard field goal attempt. For the second time that afternoon, Seibert missed, and Cousins drove the Vikings 56 yards in 25 seconds and threw a touchdown to KJ Osborn. Over the course of four plays and just 29 seconds of the game clock, the win probability completely shifted to give the Vikings a 98 percent chance.
Week 4: 28-25 vs. New Orleans Saints in London
The next week, the most pivotal play was a defensive pass interference call against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. New Orleans had a 22-19 lead and a 66.3 percent win probability as the Vikings lined up for a third-and-8 from the Saints’ 44-yard line with 5:07 left in the game. But Lattimore was flagged for a 41-yard penalty after jostling with Minnesota’s Adam Thielen, and suddenly the Vikings had first-and-goal from the Saints’ 3-yard line and a win probability of 66.6 percent, which increased to 71.6 percent after Justin Jefferson ran the ball into the end zone on a jet sweep.
Week 5: 29-22 vs. Chicago Bears
The Vikings’ next one-score win was shockingly normal, at least by their standards. Minnesota was favored most of the game; the high point for the Bears came in the fourth quarter when they led 22-21 and the probability model gave each team about a 50-50 chance to win. ESPN’s probability model never actually favored the Bears in this game, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s fumble for Chicago with 1:12 remaining essentially sealed it for Minnesota, who won 29-22.
Week 6: 24-16 at Miami Dolphins, and Week 8: 34-26 vs. Arizona Cardinals
Despite the close final scores, the next two games against the Dolphins and Cardinals were similarly uneventful. Minnesota won 24-16 at Miami and had a win probability of at least 68.5 percent the entire second half. They were helped by two fourth-quarter turnovers by the Dolphins (a fumble by Jaylen Waddle recovered by Camryn Bynum, and an interception by Patrick Peterson off Teddy Bridgewater) and a 53-yard touchdown run by Dalvin Cook.
The Cardinals game was about as uneventful as a one-score game can get; Arizona was favored by the probability of winning for just a few plays early in the third quarter, when they led 17-14. The Cardinals’ best chance came when they put the Vikings in third-and-5 at their own 41, but Cousins got out of the bad down-and-distance with a throw to Jefferson for 29 yards.
Week 9: 20-17 at Washington Commanders
Things got spicy again against the Commanders. Washington had an 86.4 percent win probability when it was up 17-10 with 9:15 left to play, after converting a third-and-9 via penalty. Two plays later, Vikings safety Harrison Smith picked off Taylor Heinicke and returned the ball to the Washington 12-yard line, at which point the Commanders’ chance of winning fell to 69.2 percent. (Smith also did an awesome bowling-themed celebration.) A touchdown pass from Cousins to Cook later, Minnesota was then favored to win the game.
Week 10: 33-30 at Buffalo Bills in overtime
As it turned out, though, the Washington game was just a warmup for the chaos to come against Buffalo, a game that ended in overtime with a 33-30 Vikings win. The high point in the win probability for the Bills came with 2:21 left in regulation, after a Von Miller sack of Cousins on third-and-13 at the Vikings’ 27-yard line. At that point, Buffalo had a 92.9 percent chance to win.
What followed was a series of massive swings: Minnesota actually converted on fourth-and-18 with a Jefferson catch and got to first-and-goal at the Bills’ 3-yard line, only to turn the ball over on downs after an anemic Cousins attempt at a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal. At that point the Bills still had a 75.8 percent chance of winning the game.
Probability flipped on the following possession, though, when Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks recovered a fumble by Bills QB Josh Allen in the end zone for a touchdown.
The Vikings then led 30-27 and had an 89.4 percent win probability but let the game become a coin flip—literally—again after allowing the Bills to drive for a field goal before the end of regulation to send the game to overtime. The Vikings made a field goal on the first possession of overtime; the game-winning play wound up being a Peterson interception of Allen in the end zone.
Week 12: 33-26 vs. New England Patriots
On Thanksgiving night, the big swing in the game came when Patriots running back Pierre Strong Jr. ran into Vikings punter Ryan Wright’s leg while trying to block a punt with 11:04 left in the game. Before the punt, the game was tied at 26 and was essentially a coin flip, with the Patriots favored at 50.4 percent. After Strong’s penalty gave Minnesota a fresh set of downs, the Vikings’ win probability spiked to 59 percent. It went up again to 71 percent after a 36-yard catch by Jefferson put the Vikings at the New England 15-yard line, and climbed to 81.2 percent after Thielen’s touchdown catch.
Week 13: 27-22 vs. New York Jets
The Vikings were in relative control most of the way against the Jets, but needed two big defensive stands in the fourth quarter to win the game. New York’s best chance came after the two-minute warning, down 27-22, with first-and-goal at the Vikings’ 4-yard line. At that point, the Jets had a 59.6 percent win probability. After Minnesota stopped them on all four downs, the probability flipped to 77.6 percent in the Vikings’ favor. They nearly let the Jets back in the game by going three-and-out in just 24 seconds on the following drive, but Minnesota’s defense stopped Mike White and Co. again with a Bynum interception on fourth-and-10 with 16 seconds remaining.
Week 15: 39-36 vs. Indianapolis Colts
The defining comeback of the Vikings’ season came against the Colts, a 33-point rally to win 39-36 in overtime, setting a new record for the largest deficit erasure in NFL history. The Colts had around a 99 percent chance of victory for much of the second and third quarters of the game, and had a 95 percent chance with as little as 2:37 remaining in regulation. The biggest game-changing moment came just after that point, on a 64-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Cook with 2:15 remaining. Cook’s score and TJ Hockenson’s two-point conversion tied the game at 36 and made it a coin flip by probability. The Vikings ultimately won on a 40-yard field goal with three seconds left in overtime.
Kirk Cousins & Dalvin Cook (64-yd TD)
Yards After Catch: 66
YAC Over Expected: +55
Most Vikings YACOE in NGS era
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 17, 2022
Week 16: 27-24 vs. New York Giants
After the drama against Indianapolis, the next win against the Giants felt rather quaint, but Minnesota still notched a record-breaking 11th one-score win thanks to Greg Joseph’s 61-yard field goal with no time remaining. Even before that point, the Vikings had taken control of the game by blocking a punt with four minutes remaining, setting themselves up to start the following drive from the Giants’ 29-yard line. They went up 24-16 on a pass from Cousins to Jefferson. The Vikings allowed a 75-yard touchdown drive to the Giants over the course of the next minute, which necessitated the long field goal to win the game.
What’s there to learn from all this? To be honest, I thought reliving these pivotal moments in an unusual season might lead to the conclusion that these Vikings are battle-tested, calm, cool, and collected in game-defining situations, the type of high-stakes moments we associate with playoffs and playoff success. I must admit, that didn’t happen.
The cleanest takeaway was that five of those 11 one-score wins swung on opponent’s mistakes: the Lions missing field goals, a 41-yard gain against the Saints by defensive pass interference, the Patriots’ running-into-the-kicker penalty and the Bears and Bills fumbling late in games. According to NFL data scientist Tom Bliss, the Vikings gained more win probability based on fumble recovery luck than any other team in the league. A sixth win came thanks to a 61-yard field goal.
The general knock on teams with a lot of one-score wins is that if they were actually good, they wouldn’t have been in those close situations needing some big play to pull out a win to begin with. The thing about the Vikings is that even if you ignore that criticism, the things they did to win the games once they were in those close situations weren’t all that impressive either.
If you believe that all of this confirms those allegations of fraudulence, though, then there is one piece of good news for the Vikings: They might have been the luckiest team in the NFL based on fumble recoveries alone, but they’re fifth based on total win probability added based on luck, including fumbles, dropped interceptions and other factors like opponents missing field goals. The real luckiest team in the league? The New York Giants.