Vikings playoff push rests on Kirk Cousins and the defense

The Minnesota Vikings finished the first half of the season with a 5-3-1 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:

First-half rewind: Quarterback Kirk Cousins and his skill players have been quick to point out that stats, no matter how good they look on paper, don't tell the whole story. Minnesota ranked in the top 10 in both total offense and defense during the first half of the season but experienced ups and downs along the way. It took the Vikings' defense the first four weeks to work out the areas where it struggled (allowing explosive gains, biting on misdirection plays, struggling to establish a pass rush) before reclaiming its identity. Offensively, the line has been a constant work in progress and hindered production on the ground until Latavius Murray broke through in Week 5 with the team's first rushing TD of the season. Those issues have forced the Vikings to rely on their passing attack, which is one of the best in the league. It's no coincidence that Cousins and Adam Thielen are on pace for record-setting seasons based on how aggressive the Vikings have been through the air, which is something expected to remain a constant throughout the second half. Grade: Above average

What's the biggest factor in the Vikings making a deep playoff run? Minnesota's defense needs to continue playing at this level where by remaining dominant on third down, pulling out big stops in the red zone and scoring off turnovers. The Vikings also need Cousins, who has performed well on the road and under pressure, especially in prime-time games at the Bears, home against the Packers and at New England. He has proven to be the upgrade Minnesota needed at quarterback in a handful of areas, but eliminating costly fumbles could be the measure between making a deep playoff run and an early exit. The Vikings also don't need to force the run game, though they're hoping Dalvin Cook (hamstring) will be able to add an element they've been missing with his explosive ability. Until then, Cousins continues to make the most of one of the best receiving duos in the NFL.

MVP: Thielen. The Pro Bowl receiver is setting team and league records every week and has been the most consistent part of the Vikings' attack with a record eight consecutive 100-yard receiving games to start the season. Leading the league in receiving and on pace to break the single-season record for receptions, Thielen is a major part of what Minnesota does offensively, and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo keeps finding new, creative ways to get the ball to him. Thielen's ability in the slot has dismantled defenses all season. When Thielen has the chance to show what he can do with his footwork and route running when facing man coverage, it's usually game over for his opponent.

Biggest surprise: The Vikings have a talented roster but haven't consistently performed like a team destined to win a title. They've won important road games but also lost head scratchers such as at home to Buffalo. They played the Rams and Saints -- two of the NFC's best -- close, but not close enough. One week the offense is firing on all cylinders while the defense stumbles, and the other week it's the opposite. Minnesota's brutally hard stretch continues in the second half, opening things up at Soldier Field, a place they haven't consistently performed well in years past.

Hurdle to overcome: Minnesota's offensive line has struggled to overcome injuries and its lack of depth, and that's probably going to remain a consistent theme. Cousins' ability to maneuver at times and get rid of the ball quickly has helped the Vikings rise above tough situations, but he also has struggled with pocket awareness and trying to save himself from incurring negative plays. Many will place the blame on Cousins in those instances, and some of that is a fair assessment, but overcoming issues with the offensive line is an ongoing process.