MINNEAPOLIS -- For the better part of three months, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell has followed a familiar postgame routine. Players gather around him. He paces. Then he gives a version of the speech he delivered Sunday after the Vikings' 27-22 victory over the New York Jets.
"By no means was that our best day," O'Connell said, according to video the team published to social media. "But I'll tell you what I felt each and every time adversity hit. I felt you guys coming together even closer."
The Vikings have pulled themselves together for 10 victories in 12 games this season, the last nine of which have been secured by one score. They're the first team in NFL history to win that many one-score games to start a season, and on Sunday, coaches and players allowed themselves to start projecting what it could mean for their future.
"We're comfortable in these situations," right tackle Brian O'Neill said. "Ideally you want to win by more. But let's be honest, we're going to be in those situations again moving forward, and if we can handle it maturely, and if we can stay laser-focused the whole time, we'll be fine."
There are plenty of ways to view the Vikings' wild season. Among them is lucky. According to data analysis performed by the NFL's football operations department, the Vikings have had more net win probability added than all but four teams via plays that it describes as "almost entirely derived from opponent performance or lucky bounces."
(The metric includes opponents' dropped passes and interceptions, along with missed kicks and fumble recoveries.)
The Vikings, after all, are 10-2 but have outscored their opponents on the season by only 10 points and are being outgained by an average of 63 yards per game. But one viewpoint seems indisputable: The Vikings are finding ways to win in close games, the dominant environment of the NFL season, at a higher frequency than any other team.
There have been 85 games decided by a touchdown or less this season, the most ever through the first 13 weeks of a season. A total of 147 games have been within one score at some point in the fourth quarter, also the most in NFL history during that span. Sunday, the Vikings allowed the Jets to cut a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to five but then turned away two separate drives into the red zone over the final two minutes of the game.
"In the fourth quarter it feels normal," said safety Camryn Bynum, who sealed the game via a goal-line interception with 10 seconds remaining. "It feels like any other play. I know pressure is on us. We're in the red zone. Fourth down. One play to lose the game or win the game. To us, that's normal football."
And it's certainly closer to playoff football, at least based on recent trends. Over the past five seasons, from 2017-21, average point differential in the postseason (9.7) has dropped about 16% from that of regular-season games (11.6). If the decrease from this season's average point differential (9.5) carries over to the playoffs in a corresponding way, then the average 2022 postseason game will be decided by one possession (7.9 points).
But as Bynum and the rest of the Vikings' defense knows, there is a clear reason why they have not been able to put teams away earlier. They have allowed 2,013 passing yards after halftime of games this season, 18% more than the next-worst team. Opponents are moving the ball against them in chunks after falling behind, and they're scoring an average of 11.6 points per game after halftime, ninth-most in the NFL.
It would be far worse, however, if the Vikings hadn't intercepted an NFL-best eight passes in the fourth quarter and overtime. Overall, their defense is tied for the NFL's eighth-best red zone efficiency (55.6%) in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The Vikings have six wins this season when trailing in the fourth quarter or overtime, which is their most such wins in a single season in franchise history. Quarterback Kirk Cousins' play in those moments is part of the reason. In the first through third quarters this season, he has ranked 24th in raw QBR at 49.3. But in fourth quarters and overtime, he has ranked ninth at (59.5).
"Being at their best when we need them to be," O'Connell said. "That's kind of been the theme for us this year."
Indeed, O'Connell's weekly "situational masters" meetings have helped elevate the Vikings in key moments of games. The question throughout this run, of course, is whether they can be any better overall -- or if this is who they are.
"I still think it is within us to be a little bit more consistent [and] coach a little bit more consistent," O'Connell said. "But as I told our team afterwards, [after] 10 wins in this league through 12 opportunities, I think they've earned the right to feel confident. ... We're going to continue to be tested, and we're going to continue to have to earn the right to go into these games with confidence.
“We’ve got some experience and the guys can rely on that, but let’s go continue to try to strive to be the best possible team we can be for this season.”