Vikings' defense driving playoff chase as O'Connell mulls another QB change

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings are still in control of a spot in the playoffs, even as they're facing the possibility of a fourth starting quarterback this season.

Whether Joshua Dobbs will keep the job or Nick Mullens will turn a decent relief appearance into a promotion, well, coach Kevin O'Connell could be forgiven for delaying such a declaration.

“It’s just a little early for me to announce that, but I feel like we’re on our way to making that decision shortly,” O'Connell said Monday, a day after his team's grisly and historic 3-0 victory at Las Vegas.

After the game, he said the Vikings were a “week-to-week offense at this point,” sounding resigned to staying in ad-lib mode for the rest of the year after injuries to wide receiver Justin Jefferson and quarterback Kirk Cousins in October sent them down an unexpected path.

Mullens replaced Dobbs in the fourth quarter of a scoreless game and directed a 13-play, 56-yard drive to set up that lonely and precious field goal. Mullens, like Dobbs, threw several times off the mark. But he went 3 for 3 for 38 yards to move the chains three times on third downs during that vital possession.

“Sometimes that’s all it takes," Mullens said. "It doesn’t matter what it looks like."

After Dobbs threw four interceptions on Nov. 27 in a 12-10 loss to Chicago, the Vikings didn't have a giveaway at Las Vegas. But after considering pulling Dobbs during the game against the Bears and benching him against the Raiders, O'Connell will be seriously mulling a starter switch this week. The Vikings (7-6) play at Cincinnati on Saturday, with one fewer day than normal to rest and prepare.

Mullens returned in 2023 for a second season as the primary backup to Cousins, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon at Green Bay on Oct. 29. Unfortunately for Mullens, he was sidelined at the time with a lower back injury. Rookie Jaren Hall started the next game at Atlanta and didn't finish the first quarter, suffering to a concussion that forced Dobbs onto the field just five days after his arrival in a trade with Arizona. The Vikings won that game and the following one before losing their next two.

Mullens started eight games for San Francisco in both 2018 and 2020 as an injury fill-in for Jimmy Garoppolo. He played for Cleveland in 2021.

“Nick has always been a guy that can be ready,” O'Connell said.


The entire defense was awarded a game ball by O'Connell after just the second shutout recorded by the Vikings in the last 30 years. The magic touch from defensive coordinator Brian Flores has kept what could have been a lost season on track.


The Vikings have started nine offensive linemen in 2023. Right tackle Brian O'Neill was the latest to get hurt. The pass protection that has been as sound this season as it's been for the team in years has allowed more pressure lately. Dobbs took five sacks before he was pulled.


Rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. has deftly stepped into lead the defensive huddle since Jordan Hicks was sidelined, playing 100% of the snaps in each of the last three games and sealing the victory on Sunday with a diving interception just after the two-minute warning. Pace, who went undrafted out of Cincinnati largely because he's only 5-foot-10, also had a sack for the second straight game.

“I’ve been showing the world since I was young that I was good," Pace said. "Now I’m here in the league and still proving it.”


Wide receiver K.J. Osborn has a career-most five dropped passes this season, according to Sportradar data. He has 40 receptions for 433 yards and two touchdowns.


So much for the benefit of the late bye week. The Vikings arrived in Las Vegas as healthy as they'd been in two months, but by the end of the game they were without five original starters on offense, including their two most vital players. Jefferson's return from a seven-game absence for a hamstring strain was spoiled by a new injury.

O'Connell sounded optimistic about Jefferson (chest), O'Neill (ankle) and running back Alexander Mattison (ankle) being able to play this week, as well as right guard Ed Ingram (hip), who was held out on Sunday. But there's one fewer day to heal with the game at Cincinnati on Saturday. Hicks (shin) could soon return to practice, a potential boost for the defense.


12 — The number of touchdowns the Vikings have allowed in their last 10 games, the fewest in the NFL over that span. Opponents have reached the end zone once in the last 12 quarters.


From injuries affecting his offense to the close games the Vikings are continually playing to critical decisions on starting quarterbacks, O'Connell has had quite the second-year test after a 13-4 record in his rookie season. He's also had plenty of staff management on his plate, with outside linebackers coach Mike Smith on personal leave all season, defensive line coach Chris Rumph departed for a college job at Clemson and offensive coordinator Wes Phillips getting arrested over the weekend on suspicion of drunken driving. O'Connell said on Sunday he will “continue to evaluate” Phillips' place on the team.