MINNEAPOLIS – Spirits are high in the Vikings locker room these days. The offense is clicking, the defense is back to full strength with Holton Hill returning from suspension, and the team hasn't lost a game in over a month.
Earlier this week, players dressed up in costumes for a team Halloween party. Kirk Cousins was Buzz Lightyear. Pat Elflein and Brian O'Neill were Mario and Luigi. Adam Thielen was Ron Burgundy. The mood is light for a team that is just one game out of first place in the NFC North and would make the playoffs if the season ended today.
But in the NFL, happy times don't always last. The Vikings, who are about to head into the tougher half of their schedule, are well aware of that. They're pleased to be 6-2, especially after a tumultuous start to the season, but they know there's still plenty of work to be done.
"I think we have to prove everything," Cousins said on Wednesday. "All this is right now is we put ourselves in a position for these last eight games to mean something. But the eight games will tell the story. All the work is out in front of us."
The work won't be easy. Starting this weekend in Kansas City, the Vikings' second-half schedule is full of tough games. The four road games are all against teams that made the playoffs a year ago. Three of the home games are within the division, where the Vikings went just 1-2 in the first half. Half of their remaining games are in primetime on Sunday or Monday night.
Cousins understands that nothing they've done so far will determine how this season is ultimately remembered.
"If we get the job done, and win some of these critical games, it’ll be a great narrative and a great story as we get close to the end of the year," Cousins said. "But if we don’t win these challenging games, then that certainly drives the narrative, too."
The Vikings are on a similar trajectory through the first half as they were last season. The 2018 team struggled out of the gates, winning just one of the first four games, then turned it on with four wins in its next five. This year's team was 2-2 before winning four straight.
The key for the Vikings is to find a way to stay hot and avoid what happened down the stretch last year. That team lost four of its final seven games and missed the playoffs. The vast majority of this current roster, including Cousins, went through that experience and is hoping to learn from it and create a different ending this time around.
"The challenge is on us to prove that we belong," Cousins said. "We said it last year as well that if we didn’t get the job done, then we didn’t belong. We didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. We’ve got a great chance now with eight games to prove that we belong in the conversation at the end.”
This is now the fifth straight year that Mike Zimmer's Vikings have had a winning record at the halfway mark, and he's experienced both potential second-half outcomes. 2016 was another bad one, when the Vikings started 5-0 but finished 8-8. But the Vikings were also 6-2 in both 2015 and 2017, and wound up making the playoffs with 11 and 13 wins, respectively.
Which way this season goes will depend on whether the Vikings can continue doing what has made them successful. That means staying true to who they are, even against stiffer competition, said Dalvin Cook.
“[We have to] just be us," Cook said. "Don’t get out of character. We’re going to go in and approach every game, prepare every game the same way. Every team is a different opponent obviously, but we’re going to approach everything the same way and play our style of football.”
For Cook, that means a continued emphasis on starting fast. In seven of the Vikings' first eight games, the team that has scored first has won.
"I think that's when we play our best football, is when we go out there and we start fast," Cook said. "It gives our defense a chance to go out there and beat them."
Stefon Diggs preached looking back at the first eight games and assessing what they can do better.
"Everyone knows we have a lot of room that we can grow, a lot of areas we can grow in," Diggs said. "We want to keep this thing going, just honing on the little things and fundamentals."
A crucial second half for Cousins, Zimmer, and everyone else in the organization starts this weekend in Kansas City. Even if Patrick Mahomes is unable to play, this game will be a good test of where the Vikings stand. They're 2-2 on the road, but playing at Arrowhead Stadium is different from playing the Giants or Lions in their building.
After that, the primetime games begin with a monumental challenge awaiting the Vikings in Dallas. Week by week, the Vikings have things to prove. That this four-game stretch isn't a fluke. That Cousins has really turned a corner. That they're a bonafide contender in the NFC.
"It's going to be right there for us and we got to go out and do it," Cousins said. "6-2 doesn't mean a whole lot if you don't turn the last eight games into something special."