After the unexpected and premature ending to the rookie season of Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, folks in the fan base of the purple team are trying to find the differences between their favorite squad and the two teams that met in the NFC Championship game.
When the Giants came to U.S. Bank Stadium in the wild-card round, most people around the Vikings expected them to take care of business and end the Giants’ season. However, that didn’t happen, and instead, their own Super Bowl dreams were busted.
Apparently, the 13-4 team was kind of a fraud, an allegation they had to listen to all season. The campaign was fun to watch, but the Vikings never belonged in a tier with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, who are clearly the two best teams in the NFC.
3 Differences Between the Vikings and the NFC Championship Teams
There are more differences than the three, but the following points are the most important ones.
The Vikings were in the first season with first-time head coach O’Connell in 2022 and changed both defensive and offensive schemes. Of course, that led to some growing pains.
Neither the Eagles nor the 49ers had a first-year head coach in the 2022 season. Minneapolis-born Kyle Shanahan has been the head coach of San Francisco since 2017. His system is the prototype of the zone running schemes in the NFL. Shanahan is considered to be an offensive mastermind.
He was the driving force in Washington when the team drafted Kirk Cousins in the fourth round in 2012 and was the offensive coordinator there until 2013. In 2016, Shanahan helped Matt Ryan to an MVP season as OC, including a trip to the Super Bowl.
His scheme has been taught in the 49ers organization for a dozen years, and the players know exactly what he wants them to do. That is a perfect example of operational continuity. The Vikings had that on defense when Mike Zimmer was at the helm. During the prime years of his feared defense, the players could almost read Zimmer’s mind and knew what they had to do on every play.
The Eagles hired head coach Nick Sirianni in 2021. He was the offensive coordinator in Indianapolis for three campaigns. He is relatively new with the Eagles, but they run his system for a second straight year. He implemented a run-first offense with scrambling threat Jalen Hurts as the signal caller. It’s a percent system for his personnel, and it took the team one season of learning to be unstoppable. The addition of receiver A.J. Brown helped, too.
A second season in an offensive system is priceless, and the Vikings will benefit from that in their second season working with head coach O’Connell. In addition to the whole team benefitting, quarterback Kirk Cousins will have back-to-back seasons with an offensive coordinator for the first time since becoming a starter in 2015.
The Vikings’ offensive line is still a mess despite investing draft capital every year. Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill, the offensive tackles, are two of the league’s best tackles. However, quarterback Cousins was still hit 84 times, the most of all quarterbacks.
The interior line of Cleveland-Bradbury-Ingram has to be blamed for that. Ed Ingram has potential, but his rookie campaign had a rough start. Ezra Cleveland is one of the best-run blockers in the league but occasionally struggles in pass protection, something he has in common with center Garrett Bradbury.
The Eagles have probably had the best offensive line for half a decade, it was the driving force to their Super Bowl run in 2017, and it is still the team’s strength in 2022. Tackles Mailata and Johnson are outstanding in both run and pass blocking. Center Jason Kelce is arguably the best center in the game, and the two guards. Seumalo and Dickerson, are two of the better guards. The line has no weakness, and even the backups are fantastic players.
Trent Williams is one of the best players in the NFL and one of the keys for Shanahan’s offense to function. On the opposite side, the 49ers employ Mike McGlinchey, a strong right tackle. In the interior, the 49ers have three average-level players who are no stars by any means but aren’t weaknesses either.
The Vikings will probably lose Bradbury in free agency, and a second-year jump from Ingram is possible. Cleveland has to improve his pass blocking. Investing in a new interior lineman, either in the draft or free agency, is and should be an option.
The Vikings had one of the worst defenses in the league for a third straight year. Minnesota gave up the second-most yards and the third-most points in 2022. Both are disastrous numbers. In ten of the 18 games, the Vikings allowed the opponents to gain 400 yards, two more than any other team. A new defensive coordinator could help fix the defense next season.
The two best NFC teams, meanwhile, have dominant defensive units. Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson had their worst game of the season in Week 2 in Philadelphia. Excellent cornerbacks and a deep defensive line with stars across the board are the recipes for success.
The 49ers are known for their outstanding defensive line. Behind them, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, two of the elite linebackers in the game, are a nightmare to play against. Defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans is expected to land a head coaching job in the next few days.
According to DVOA, the 49ers had the league’s best defense, while the Eagles were sixth. In EPA/play, the two teams are first and fourth. Two different metrics with units at and near the top can’t be coincidental.
While there is no blueprint for how teams can become a contender, a team without a good offensive line and defense will have it tough to be a top team. The Vikings must improve those two groups when they play against the 49ers and the Eagles in the 2023 regular season.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt