The Vikings started 0-3. Now they're 4-4 and really in crisis without Kirk Cousins

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EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have already endured the frustration of opening the season by losing three straight one-score games, an 0-3 start that has preceded an appearance in the playoffs only six times in the history of the NFL.

Fittingly for this star-crossed franchise, the real crisis waited to arrive until after a three-game winning streak brought their record back to even and thrust them back into the race. The Vikings (4-4) need a new quarterback, with Kirk Cousins done for the year with a torn Achilles tendon.

“Adversity has really been a breeding ground for tremendous growth within our organization that I think will help us for many, many opportunities to come," coach Kevin O'Connell said. “We'll all need to just do a little bit more. We’ll all need to be just a little bit better.”

Despite the 0-3 start, the Vikings were confident they could climb back to the .500 mark by the rough midpoint of their schedule, and they did just that by going 4-1 in October. They've already played three of the four teams that reached the conference championships last season and two of their three intra-division road games.

Now they're entering a six-week stretch with five opponents — Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago and Las Vegas — all currently at .500 or worse, plus the valuable late bye waiting in Week 13. Even with a backup quarterback, staying in the hunt should be realistic, especially if superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson returns sooner than later from injury.

“We know that it’s a team game. It hurts to have Kirk be down, but there’s still 10 other guys on the field that can carry some weight. We trust the next guy up,” safety Cam Bynum said. “Even as a defense we can make more plays, and we’re going to make more plays to help this team. But, really, the hope and the confidence is on our preparation.

"We know that no matter who’s in or who’s playing, everybody on this team is capable of helping this team win.”

WHAT'S WORKING

The defense has executed quite the turnaround since the 0-3 start, allowing only seven touchdowns with 17 sacks over the last five games and forcing seven turnovers during the three-game winning streak. The tackling has been sound. The defensive line, in particular, was superb in the 24-10 win at Green Bay on Sunday, with Harrison Phillips tying for the team lead with eight tackles and D.J. Wonnum getting two of the team's four sacks.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The Vikings still aren't running the ball with enough consistent success. They needed 31 attempts to net 62 yards on the ground, though Cam Akers did give them their first rushing touchdown of the season. Their average of 3.5 yards per carry is the fifth-lowest in the league.

STOCK UP

WR K.J. Osborn. He had eight catches, the second-highest total of his career, for 99 yards against the Packers as Cousins repeatedly targeted him in creases big and small in the middle of the zone coverages. Despite several quiet games this season, the fourth-year wide receiver is on pace for career highs in targets, receptions and yards.

STOCK DOWN

Special teams have been hurting the Vikings lately. Greg Joseph had a 44-yard field goal blocked and a 42-yard attempt sail wide right. All of his misses — four field goals and two extra points — have occurred during the three-game winning streak.

Rookie Ivan Pace was called for holding during what would've been an 103-yard touchdown return of a kickoff by Ty Chandler. Rookie Jay Ward was offside during a missed field goal by the Packers, and Anders Carlson made his second-chance kick. Ward did the same thing during a made field goal in the opener against Tampa Bay, giving the Buccaneers a fresh set of downs on their way to a touchdown.

INJURY REPORT

Jefferson (hamstring) and quarterback Nick Mullens (lower back) must miss at least one more game before they're eligible to return to the active roster, but their absences could well stretch beyond that. ... Left guard Ezra Cleveland (foot) missed his second consecutive game, replaced by Dalton Risner. Once he's fully healthy, the Vikings will have a decision to make about their starting lineup.

KEY NUMBER

287 — The average of total yards allowed by the Vikings over the last five weeks. That's the third-best mark in the league during that span, according to Sportradar.

UP NEXT

The Vikings face the Falcons (4-4), whose standout defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was just lost for the season because of a knee injury.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL