The Minnesota Vikings found another way to win a last-second one-score game, with a 61-yard field goal from Greg Joseph securing the 27-24 win against the New York Giants.
This win, actualizing as the clock expired and Joseph tried to bring in the longest-made kick in his career, was somehow not one of the three most exciting games the Vikings have played. They nevertheless continued their unlikely march for the top seed, hoping that the Philadelphia Eagles drop enough games as the season winds down to bring the first seed within reach.
The Minnesota Vikings, Kirk Cousins, and Justin Jefferson Set Records
Along the way, the Vikings were able to set some franchise and league records. Joseph’s field goal was the longest in the team’s history, one that was set up by Justin Jefferson’s final catch of the game – the one that allowed him to surpass Cris Carter for the most receptions in a season in team history. Earlier in the game, Jefferson had already passed Randy Moss for most receiving yards in a season for a player in a Vikings uniform.
And the Vikings also moved to 11-0 in one-score games, allowing them to pass the 1978 Houston Oilers (10-3) and 2019 Seattle Seahawks (10-2). Cousins was able to add to his fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive total, with eight on the season in both categories.
Cousins tied Matthew Stafford for the most in a season in both categories, a mark the former Detroit Lion QB hit in 2016. Jefferson is on pace to catch another former Lion, the historic NFL receiving yardage leader, Calvin Johnson, who generated 1,964 yards in 2012.
After earning 133 yards in this game, Jefferson only has to accumulate 208 more yards to finish out the season in order to take down that record. He’s more than on pace, as he’s averaging 117 yards a game. He only needs to barely beat that pace to hit 2,000 yards in a season, which is 244 yards away.
Jefferson also happened to surpass Randy Moss for most 100-yard games in a player’s first four seasons. Given that Jefferson has yet to finish his third season, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll get to cushion that lead by a substantial margin.
In fact, Jefferson is sixth all-time in total receiving yards over a player’s first four years and needs just 624 to pass Randy Moss for second and 740 to beat Michael Thomas for the all-time record.
And, as a nice cherry on top, T.J. Hockenson set a career-high in receptions, with 13 catches for 109 yards. Two of them were for touchdowns.
Kirk Cousins Struggled Until it Mattered
Individually, it was an uneven game for Cousins. Before the second half, Cousins had issues remaining consistently accurate and struggled to connect with his receivers.
He threw at least two interceptable passes that were dropped by Giants players and challenged tight windows without the accuracy to beat them, allowing the Giants to rack up six pass deflections. He averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt and 5.2 net yards per dropback after accounting for sacks.
But in the fourth quarter, Cousins did something that has become characteristic of his 2022 season and completely foreign to his 2015-2021 play – he turned it on in the clutch. In the first three quarters, the Vikings could only convert 28.6 percent of their third downs but found a way to convert 66.7 percent of their third downs in the fourth quarter.
Part of the issue was the pressure Cousins was under. Pressure has been a big problem this year, as he remains the most-hit quarterback in the NFL. Giants defenders piled up 11 quarterback hits to go with their four sacks. The offensive line also had issues keeping Dalvin Cook clean in the backfield; defenders generated six tackles-for-loss.
Some of those had nothing to do with the offensive line — Jefferson ended up with 12 receptions but “only” 133 yards, which is below his normal yards per reception. Part of that has to do with the Vikings’ insistence on the screen game, which looked like it had revived itself against the Colts last week and had some brief moments of excellence against the Giants.
But despite some good after-catch performances from tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Johnny Mundt, the screen game for Jefferson was up and down. It ended on a high note, as Jefferson took the ball into field goal range on the final screen of the contest, but it was dicey before then.
The Vikings were a tiny bit lucky in the game, benefiting from some dropped Giants passes, dropped Giants interceptions, and a great punt block from Josh Metellus. But this showdown wasn’t as characterized by late-game, high-leverage lucky outcomes that defined key moments against the Buffalo Bills or New Orleans Saints earlier in the year; the Vikings dropped their own share of passes, and the officiating in this game wasn’t egregious like it had been in other games.
The Minnesota Vikings Defense Is Getting Better
A more even Vikings squad — one that can threaten to close games and expand on leads — would be deadly in the playoffs. That might be on the offing and has less to do with the offense (which is playing below its potential), but more to do with the defense.
Since the second half of the Colts game, the Vikings have been much more aggressive about sending extra pass-rushers. Over that period of time, they sent blitzes — often with man coverage behind them — on over 40 percent of opponent dropbacks. Prior to that, their blitz rate was at 19.2 percent, one of the lowest in the league.
The Vikings used to play more zone than any other team in coverage — running man coverage a scant 13.5 percent of the time — but led the league in man coverage in Week 15 and repeated their heavy usage of the concept against the Giants.
The result has been 27 points given up over those six quarters (and overtime). They’ve also changed the alignments of their pass rushers and have given Danielle Hunter more snaps with his hand in the dirt. In this game, that helped Hunter get involved in all three sacks that Daniel Jones took, giving him a sack total of 2.0 on the day, having split with D.J. Wonnum and Khyiris Tonga on two of them.
He also forced a fumble and generated four quarterback hits.
Za’Darius Smith didn’t get home on any of his pass rushes but hit Daniel Jones three times. Chandon Sullivan, Dalvin Tomlinson, and, of course, both Tonga and Wonnum earned quarterback hits as well.
Defensively, we saw the risks and rewards of an increased use of man coverage. Patrick Peterson had two of the best plays in coverage for any Vikings player with a first-quarter pass deflection on the sideline and a fourth-quarter interception, but in between them, was liable to give up significant yardage in the passing game and incurred a pass interference penalty on top of it.
Defensive back depth has been an issue all season, and the Vikings were forced to start Duke Shelley once more — with Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans on injured reserve and Cameron Dantzler still on the injury report, there weren’t many options to turn to. But once again, Shelley put together a quality performance. He did struggle a bit late but didn’t give up big plays and tackled well.
That depth was put to a particular test when Sullivan suffered an injury in the fourth quarter. Instead of replacing Sullivan with another corner to play the slot position, they inserted safety Josh Metellus there instead.
Metellus has played slot snaps for the Vikings in training camp for several years but had only played significant snaps there in one other game in his career — a relatively meaningless Week 18 matchup against the Chicago Bears in 2021.
Nevertheless, it worked out, and the Vikings could rely on their pass rush to bolster the defense to bring home the win. The Vikings have outpaced their performance, hoping that they can learn lessons from wins instead of losses to better the team and make them more consistent by the time they enter the playoffs.
If they’ve solved their defensive woes — or at least made them less of a liability — then they may enter the postseason as a more complete unit.
The Vikings are in the middle of a magical season, packing in more exciting games in one 17-game slate than most fans will see from their teams over the course of three seasons. It’s been fun to watch, even if the ultimate quality of the team is up for debate.