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How good are the Vikings? Answer still unclear after fifth consecutive win

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings started their 34-26 victory over the Arizona Cardinals with a 75-yard touchdown drive and ended it with a sack. They had 381 yards on offense, four sacks and two interceptions on defense, and a takeaway on special teams. They were sound and efficient, leaving me to confidently say:

I don't know any more now about how good the Vikings really are than I did before entering U.S. Bank Stadium.

Yes, they have won five in a row and are 6-1 overall. Yes, their closest competition in the NFC North is 3-5. Yes, every victory in the win streak has been by one score. And yes, their only loss was to the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.

But trying to decipher what it means is challenging because the Vikings have been good, not great. Just two of their opponents had winning records at the time that they played, and when five of your six wins are by eight points or fewer, it typically means you are one bad play from seeing the outcome tilt the other way. Moreover, when you are unable to decisively put away opponents despite holding double-digit leads in the second half, as was the case in each of their last three games, it sometimes speaks to survival mode, not dominance.

Maybe the answer is as simple as what a Vikings assistant coach told me before the game, when asked how good the team is:

"As good as we need to be," he answered.

What a perfect description for these Vikings, who have done just enough to get by. They are not where they want to be, nor where they expect to be. But they are stacking wins to get there, focused on the journey instead of the destination.

The fact that they have been the least-discussed one-loss team in the league in recent weeks is fine with them. If they were 6-1 and wearing green and gold colors like a certain team in Wisconsin, they'd likely lead most highlight shows.

"We'd be everywhere," said linebacker Za’Darius Smith, a former Packer.

But these Vikings welcome their relative anonymity -- for now, at least. The goal is to be talked about when the temperature drops and the shadows grow long on the season. They listened last week during their bye as outsiders mentioned them almost as an afterthought while talking up the Bills and Giants, teams that had the same number of losses as them.

"It's one of those things where you kind of embrace a little bit of an underdog mentality, even if our record and the games that we've put together say it's not typical of being in that position," said running back Alexander Mattison. "It's one of those things where we're focused on what we have internally in this locker room as a family, as a unit, and it's us against the world. That's kind of the mindset that we have about people not talking about us.

"You're kind of like, eventually they'll learn and they'll respect you. I don't know what the stipulations are on why people don't see us as the team that we are. We just have to keep proving it every Sunday."

Here's the thing about the Vikings: They have talent, are well-coached and generally don't beat themselves. They've had only one game in which they were on the minus side in turnover differential, and that was their 24-7 loss to the Eagles in Week 2. They have one of the game's better running backs in Dalvin Cook, who ran for 111 yards on Sunday; a productive quarterback in Kirk Cousins, who threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another; and an opportunistic defense that has recorded multiple takeaways in three of the past four games.

They also have great leadership among, and accountability to, each other, as well as high football IQs, which allow them to apply what they are taught during the week.

"Every single week we talk to our team about what it's going to take to win the game -- real definitive things, not just coach speak," said first-year head coach Kevin O'Connell. "We talk about playing smart and limiting penalties, situational masters, and being plus-two in the turnovers is always our goal. But it's more than that. It's, how are we going to win the game? What are the things we really got to focus on in all three phases to win the football game each and every week? When you do that to a smart football team that has great leadership, you'd be shocked at how much you see those things come to life."

He mentioned Cousins' 17-yard touchdown run to start the game. The Cardinals gave him a single-high safety look, which meant there could be an opportunity to run if pass defenders had their backs turned. Sure enough, the opportunity presented itself and Cousins did as he had been taught, taking off around the right edge and beating the pursuit to the pylon.

O'Connell called it a "winning play." Cousins viewed it as smart football.

"Honestly, we had a great play for man coverage, and they defended it really well," he said. "I was surprised at their ability to take it away. Then I kind of was like, 'I got to go, I got to move.' I was still looking to throw it, but didn't feel we had anybody. Just kind of took off. Usually the cavalry gets there a lot faster, but on that one, for some reason, I was able to get to the front pylon. I had no idea how much it means to the O-linemen when I run. They said it was big deal to them. I didn't realize that. If I'd known that, maybe I'd run more. For some reason they really liked it. Garrett (Bradbury) said it was the greatest thing he has ever seen."

You don't have to be around the Vikings long to feel the positive vibes. It can be felt from the stands or in the locker room. They believe in each other. The same cannot be said of the Cardinals (3-5), who desperately needed a victory on Sunday.

They began the day a game out of first place in the NFC West, but their standing was deceiving. They are 0-2 against division opponents and fully aware that, in the jumbled NFC, conference record could be a major factor in determining who gets into the playoffs and who doesn't. 

Sunday marked the sixth of nine consecutive games against NFC opponents for them -- the last three in that stretch are against NFC West teams -- and instead of building momentum, they reinforced their standing as one of the league's most perplexing teams. They have as much talent as the Vikings, but can't find a way to bring it together. Oftentimes they look like a team whose players and coaches are meeting for the first time. If it's not the miscommunication and turnovers -- they had three giveaways on Sunday -- it's the continued failure to send in play calls in a timely matter. Or the inability to execute. Some examples:

  • They were called for a false start on third-and-2 from the Minnesota 41, taking them out of favorable down-and-distance. Result: sack.
  • They opened the third quarter with consecutive holding penalties, setting up a first-and-27. Result: punt.
  • They had a third-and-8 from the Vikings' 11 but the play call was late, so they called a timeout. Result: miscommunication on the snap count, fumble, settled for field goal.
  • Miscommunication contributed to one of Kyler Murray's two interceptions. He expected tight end Zach Ertz to continue running vertically from the Minnesota 44-yard line, but Ertz flattened the route, resulting in the ball being thrown behind him. Result: lost opportunity for a field goal.

The Cardinals just can't get it right. Even things beyond their control are going against them, such as a commercial for the video game Call of Duty running during the game. It featured football players apologizing to their head coach after not getting sleep because they were playing the game through the night. Murray, an avid gamer, took a lot of heat in the offseason about his purported lack of study habits.

The issue in Arizona is not talent. From a distance, the Cardinals are a group of capable players who don't play well together, particularly on offense. Is it culture? Is it a head coach who appears to be feeling the heat beneath his seat? When the players have to tell the coach to "calm the f--- down" during a game, as Murray did to Kliff Kingsbury two weeks ago, it's an issue. The coach is supposed to be the calming presence for the players.

None of these things are concerns in Minnesota, where the Vikings continue to go about their business in an orderly fashion. How good can this team be? 

"I ain't going to say nothing," said Smith, who had three of the Vikings' four sacks. "I'm going to let Kirk Cousins answer that one."

So, Cousins?

"We're one week at a time," he said. "I kind of like it this way. I don't need anybody to talk about us. We're good. There's a lot of football left. You all know, I know playing in this league, being around this league, it's week to week. You just got to keep earning your way. The difference between 6-1 and 1-6 is pretty thin. You just got to keep finding ways to win and keep moving forward."

How good are the Vikings? The favored answer, apparently, is to check back in a month or two.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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