Vikings vs. Giants: Minnesota Follows Script but With One Key Twist

The Minnesota Vikings played their classic script against the New York Giants with one key twist. And now the Giants move on to the Eagles.

The Minnesota Vikings are 11-1 in one-score games. After a 31-24 loss to the New York Giants, the Vikings season – characterized by miracle run after miracle run – ended in perhaps the only way it could: a game that started with a touchdown drive that slowly unraveled until it needed fourth-quarter heroics to pull out a win. They didn’t get those heroics.

After filling their season with storybook games from front to back, the Vikings validated the biggest fears fans and analysts had about the team, with a defense allowing four scores in the first five Giants drives and Kirk Cousins finishing the game by following his reads instead of taking a necessary chance on fourth down.

After finishing the regular season 27th in points per drive, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell assured observers in the week leading up to the game that “you’ll like the way we play” in the playoffs, emphasizing that it was “our time to shine.”

The Giants scored their second-highest points per drive, with only their 38-10 beatdown of the coachless Indianapolis Colts bettering their 3.44-points per drive mark.

Vikings Followed Through on Their Season-Long Threat To Disappoint

It would be inaccurate to say that regression comes home to roost, but there’s no better way to describe a team where their comeback quarterback reverted to his career self, putting together remarkable throws from the first to third quarter only to lose the plot in the final moments of the game.

It’s difficult to avoid the fact that a team that had been feasting on close wins all season would be done in by the final drive of a one-score game.

Kirk Cousins tied the record for comeback wins in a single season, matching Matthew Stafford’s 2016 total of eight wins. The dirty secret to the comeback record is that it doesn’t often happen to good teams. In addition to the 2022 Vikings and 2016 Lions, the record-chasers included the 2016 Derek Carr Raiders, the 2021 Ben Roethlisberger Steelers, and the 1985 John Elway Broncos – most of whom didn’t even make the postseason, much less win there.

The 2009 Peyton Manning Colts and 2018 Drew Brees Saints stand as outliers in this regard and made a postseason run. For the others, it usually led to early exits.

The belief the Vikings had in themselves, built over a season of winning impossible games, gave them the emotional resilience they needed when they took the field – but that’s never as good as avoiding those situations in the first place.

The final play of the Vikings season was a three-yard pass on fourth and eight to tight end T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson had been magnificent all game and served as a fantastic counterpunch to the attention the Giants had been giving all game to All-Pro receiver Justin Jefferson. Before that play, he had nine receptions for 126 yards.

He was not the right target on that play.

“The intent as a play-caller is you’re not going to call a primary concept where somebody is short of the sticks to gain, especially on 4th down,” said Kevin O’Connell; “If it’s 3rd down and you can catch, convert and make it a 4th and 2 or 3, that’s okay.”

Cousins couldn’t take that final chance. An interception there is as good as an incompletion, and with the pressure bearing down and the rest of the postseason on the line, he chose the play he knew would result in a completion knowing that a completion didn’t matter – a conversion did.

“[I] saw single high, tried to work Justin, didn’t feel good about putting it up to Justin, and when I went to progress I just felt like I was about to get sacked and I felt like I’ve got to put the ball in play, and I can’t go down with sack, so I thought I’d kick it out to T.J.”

Facing this look with this play, Cousins has a few choices. He can either follow the original progression in the play and look from Jefferson to Osborn to Hockenson and throw to Jefferson double-covered or Osborn winning his cross.

Or he can see the strength of the defense and alignment of coverage and chase Thielen on the backside, starting his progression there before going to Osborn and Cook flaring out in the flat. With single-high coverage and Jefferson aligned to where the defense has numbers, Cousins should know that Thielen is essentially running away from that safety and has single coverage.

And the entire time, Osborn has leverage.

Progressions aren’t static – they change based on the circumstances of the play. He can start his progression with Jefferson, an entirely reasonable place to start, but he would need to trust Jefferson in those situations if he starts his read there every single time, regardless of circumstance. If he follows Jefferson unconditionally, he should at least trust the receiver.

But quarterbacks change their progressions based on the looks they get pre-snap, and Thielen getting single-coverage to the outside should be an alert to do that.

Truthfully, it was the highest-leverage moment of the game for the Vikings. But it wasn’t the reason they lost the game. Cousins played well and was let down by a defense that couldn’t help but let the Giants score.

The Vikings lost contain on runs from Jones, lost receivers in pass patterns over the middle, and couldn’t keep pace deep. While they could get pressure, they couldn’t turn that into results. Coverage didn’t hold up, and the scheme couldn’t account for the ways that the Giants chose to attack them. They were outmatched and couldn’t take advantage of their biggest strengths.

A defense that last year finished 24th in points allowed, leading to the firing of their defensive head coach, followed that by finishing 30th in points allowed per game.

When asked if this meant a change in coaching on the defensive side of the ball, O’Connell deferred. He lauded the defensive coordinator’s work ethic and commitment but said that any kind of decision on that front would be made later.

The Giants Set Themselves Up for Success

The 31 points from New York also show how the Giants adapted well to what the Vikings did. In the previous matchup, the Giants blitzed on 51 percent of Vikings’ dropbacks, leaving single coverage behind for Jefferson and Hockenson. This time, the Giants flipped those digits around and blitzed on just 15 percent of dropbacks.

Getting that extra defender back in coverage meant putting another player on Jefferson and consistently doubling him throughout the game. Jefferson finished with just 47 yards on seven catches. Outside of the first drive, he had 17 yards on three catches.

While this might be inexcusable for the Vikings, it’s exactly what the Giants planned for. The most blitz-heavy team in the league this season and one that laid on the pressure in their last matchup, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.

“Wink [Martindale] and the staff did a good job. They hit some plays and got some good players, but one key was not to let 18 beat us. I thought the plan, and most important, the execution by the players, that’s what’s most important,” said head coach Brian Daboll.

Building on what others have done – shadowing Jefferson with their best corner and keeping a safety up top to bracket him – has been the key to keeping him contained. The Lions did it with Jeff Okudah, the Eagles with Darius Slay, and the Packers with Jaire Alexander. In games with that kind of bracket shadow, Jefferson finished with 10 receptions for 77 yards in total – or 25.7 yards per game.

When asked if he was surprised by the Giants’ approach, Jefferson said, “They did what everybody else does. It was not a shocker or something that was surprising.”

While that could be read as an indictment of the Vikings – and in many ways, it is – it’s also a credit to Martindale for abandoning his preferred style of defense to find something more effective.

It also helps when they can get pressure. The Giants pressured Cousins on 40.0 percent of dropbacks, the most of any team on Wild Card Weekend. The biggest contributors to that were interior defensive linemen Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, who combined for about 14 pressures against the interior offensive line of Ed Ingram, Ezra Cleveland, and the recently returned Garrett Bradbury.

Bradbury and Ingram, in particular, were overwhelmed by the front, while tackles Christian Darrisaw and Oli Udoh largely acquitted themselves well against the impressive edge rush.

Martindale’s adjustment kept the Vikings’ offense, normally potent when its playmakers can run free, from exploding – particularly late.

The Giants now have the chance to take on another repeat opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles put up 48 points in their first matchup and just 22 points in the second matchup. They also reduced the Washington Commanders from 20 points to 12 points in their follow-up game. The only time they gave up more points the second time around to a team was with the Dallas Cowboys, who didn’t have starting quarterback Dak Prescott for their first game, a 16-point affair.

They will need more from their offense than they’ve gotten in previous games, but crossing the 30-point threshold for the second time this season is a good start. Creating designed runs for Jones, a gifted scrambler, is part of that offensive production.

After struggling throughout the season to figure out what their receiver room would look like, they’ve established a solid corps with Darius Slayton, Richie James, and Isaiah Hodgins – giving them a deep threat, route-runner, and contested-catch receiver – to help them out in any situation.

It’s a credit to Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka that they could turn that offensive group into something that could produce for them. And the fact that they found a way to get Jones even more involved in the running game when they sensed a contain weakness from the Vikings is even better; before the final kneel-downs of the game, Jones finished with 80 rushing yards on 14 carries for 5.7 a carry.

The Giants Continue Their Story Against the Eagles

The Giants were perhaps the favorites among the underdogs to win in the opening weekend of the playoffs. Now, as the lowest remaining seed in the NFC, they have the opportunity to take on the top seed and divisional rivals Philadelphia Eagles. With the Eagles’ 2-0 record against them and excellent underlying numbers, they’ll be much bigger favorites at home than the Vikings were.

The fact that the Giants seem to be one of the few teams that have gotten healthier as they approach the playoffs is a big help, but the bye week might have been crucial for a banged-up Eagles squad that might enter the game feeling better than the underdog Giants.

As for the Vikings, they’ll have all offseason to recover.

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast!

Listen to the PFN Inside Access Podcast! Click the embedded player below to listen, or you can find the PFN Fantasy Podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.  Be sure to subscribe and leave us a five-star review!

Related Articles