Vikings prove they're contenders after 3-0 NFC North stretch

MINNEAPOLIS -- A month ago, the Minnesota Vikings were 1-5 coming off an embarrassing loss to the Atlanta Falcons when general manager Rick Spielman had his annual bye-week press conference.

Hope was not springing eternal for this franchise which, hours earlier, cut bait on pricey defensive end Yannick Ngakoue after six games.

Asked just how far away the Vikings were to being back in contention, Spielman noted how many division matchups they had coming after the bye. Based on how they played in the next three games against the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, Minnesota would soon have an answer to that question.

Three wins in a row during a stretch that saved their season has the Vikings in position to make a playoff push even with a 4-5 record. It was a gamble at the time, but Minnesota's belief in this roster in spite of injuries and inexperience persuaded decision makers not to ship off veterans at the Nov. 3 trade deadline. Keeping this team together was the key to getting back on track.

The Vikings are a different team entering Week 11. And the gamble they took on this roster wasn't the only thing that changed the course of their season.

"They just keep fighting," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "That's all we do, we come in there and practice every day. These guys, before the game, they weren't tight. I could tell in the locker room they weren't tight. They seem to go out and practice real hard, they seem to respond in practice -- one of the things that we've been emphasizing a lot in the last few weeks is not allowing completions in practice defensively. Maybe that's starting to show up, the competition part.

"It's three games, we're fighting our way back into this thing hopefully. Still got a lot of football left to play, and hopefully we can keep going."

Rookie receiver Justin Jefferson saw something lacking before this three-game stretch.

"Energy," Jefferson said. "Not having fans in the stadium, we were lacking a lot of energy the first couple of weeks. But we found that energy, we found that swagger that we've been having and we came out ready to play football. The last three weeks, that's what we've been doing and we're looking to continue to do it."

Perhaps the biggest reason for the turnaround is the myriad changes across the board and the fact that coaches are no longer banging their heads into a wall trying to figure out the fix.

The Vikings won an ugly 19-13 game in Chicago on Monday night, but ugly is OK as long as it's effective. They held Chicago's putrid offense to 149 yards after allowing 413 yards on average in eight previous games.

Time has allowed Minnesota to get to this place, with young players building experience and confidence each week. The coaching Zimmer has done in the hardest test of his career has been his best effort in all seven seasons in Minnesota. The Vikings rank 10th in offensive and defensive DVOA, a measure of a team's efficiency by comparing success on every play to the NFL's average based on situation and opponent.

Why is that? Because they've figured out what works, and they're sticking with it.

When offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak went over what went wrong in Minnesota's first five losses, he fleshed out an approach the Vikings could carry over week to week. A run-first team would remain a run-first team even when it might be difficult against certain opponents.

Against a good Chicago defense, the Vikings still handed the ball to Dalvin Cook 30 times. While he didn't put up the same yardage of the past few weeks, he still surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage (112). Statistically, any time that's happened, the Vikings are in better position to win games.

Kubiak has figured out how to put quarterback Kirk Cousins in the best position to win. With a constant threat of the run, Cousins has been successful off play-action. In Chicago, the offense sustained drives off short to intermediate throws early on which allowed the Vikings to find holes in the Bears' zone coverage. That let Cousins take deeper shots.

It yielded terrific results. Against the No. 1 third-down defense, Cousins was 10-of-11 for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard pass to Jefferson on third-and-11 that allowed the Vikings to get back in the game in the second half.

Cousins orchestrated the second game-winning drive of his Minnesota career on a 6-yard TD to Adam Thielen in the fourth quarter. It was his third go-ahead score in the fourth quarter this season.

The air changing around Cousins is no small part of why the Vikings are in the midst of this hot streak.

"I just think as the season goes on you start to figure out who you are and how you play and who you lean on, and I think it's been nice to kind of figure ourselves out, find an identity as we play through things," Cousins said. "So I like that part of it. Just like I said at the bye week when we had 10 games left, these 10 games are going to tell the story. Even after three wins, I'd still say the same going forward.

"It feels like the next one or the next three are really going to tell the story. Until the last game has been played and the final whistle has been blown, you're always thinking about how you have to build on it and get to the next one and keep it going."

The Vikings must get their special teams struggles cleaned up (they average the worst starting field position and opponent's average starting field position in the NFL). If that happens, they could be one of the more dangerous teams down the stretch.

It would further prove that the gamble they took a month ago was the right one.