Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
As the Vikings built a 20-3 first-half lead over the Jets, my first thought was this is the week the Purple cruises to an easy win. But then Greg Zuerlein made a 60-yard field goal as the first half expired and a 36-yarder early in the third quarter, followed by Kirk Cousins overthrowing a wide-open T.J. Hockenson, and Justin Jefferson dropping a ball slightly behind him on the same drive.
By then, we all figured it was going to be another nail-biter for the Purple and their stay-til-the-end fan base.
Bottom line: it was a 27-22 win, improving Minnesota’s record to 10-2 and now an incredible 9-0 in one-score games. The win sets up an opportunity for the Vikings to win the NFC North as this magical season continues Sunday in Detroit against the 5-7 Lions, who have won four of their last five games and just crushed Jacksonville 40-14.
The Vikings magic number is one with the Lions, and Vikings fans have to love that the Packers are now officially eliminated from the division race. And a team’s 10thwin always is a good benchmark for a successful season in the ultra-competitive NFL with a chance to add several more wins down the stretch.
The much-improved Jets challenged the Vikings with a third straight top-five defense. It was a game in which the Vikings offense hit a third-quarter lull while their defense bent — a lot allowing 486 total yards — but came up with two huge fourth-quarter red zone stops (and almost a third stop until Mike White’s QB sneak was reviewed and ruled a touchdown).
This game was won in the redzone, where the Vikings scored TDs on all three trips, and the Jets went 1 for 6 on TDs in the red zone. The other key stat was turnover ratio which has been a key all season, and the Vikings were plus 2 on Sunday with interceptions on the first, and last Jets drive while the offense didn’t turn it over.
With the victory, the Vikings swept the tough AFC East and kept their two-game lead over the 49ers for the important No. 2 seed in the NFC (and San Fran lost QB Jimmy Garoppolo for the rest of the season with a broken foot in their win over Miami).
Here are my other reactions to the win over the Jets:
1. Harrison Smith, who tied his career high with his fifth interception on the Jets’ first drive, spoke the truth in talking of the Vikings’ defensive issues in terms of yards allowed (the Vikings rank 31st in total yards allowed and 32nd against the pass). “It’s the explosives,” he said. “Just got to tackle better. Not get greedy in some scenarios.”
The Jets and White — in his fifth career start — produced seven plays of 20 or more yards, including fourth-quarter chunk plays of 60 yards from White to receiver Garrett Wilson (with several missed tackles on the play) and a 48-yard run by undrafted Zonovan Knight. These two plays led to 10 points. The Vikings D has to improve down the stretch and come playoff time in terms of allowing so many big plays, and coordinator Ed Donatell has to avoid matchups such as Danielle Hunter in coverage on tight end C.J. Uzomah, which resulted in a 31-yard third-quarter pass play.
2. The two fourth-quarter holds by the defense in goal-to-go situations, along with the final drive stop (that ended at the Minnesota 19), were terrific examples of team defense. The return of Dalvin Tomlinson helped the run D on these stands, along with strong play by Harrison Phillips, Eric Kendricks, and Jordan Hicks, among many others.
Another positive and key to the victory for both the offense and defense came on third downs. The Vikings D held the Jets to 3 of 16 on third down (and 2 of 5 on fourth down) while the offense converted 50% (9 of 18) on third down and had a 4th-and-2 conversion on a pass from Cousins to K.J. Osborn on the first TD drive.
3. The Vikings pass rush must get to the quarterback more effectively than in recent weeks (they did not sack Detroit’s Jared Goff in the Week 3 win and will need to put more pressure him in Motown). White was only sacked once on Sunday, although D.J. Wonnum did pressure him on the last play interception by Cam Bynum.
Za’Darius Smith had two QB hits and a pass knocked down on third down, but he is now sackless in his last three games. How much is his knee problem impacting his performance? If the Vikings can get the division and a top-two seed wrapped up in the next four weeks, it would be wise to rest Smith and Danielle Hunter or give them very limited snaps in the regular season finale in Chicago, even if the top seed is up for grabs with Philly.
4. Outside corners Akayleb Evans and Duke Shelley were often picked on by White, and slot corner Chandon Sullivan had an up-and-down game (great break-up on ex-Viking Tyler Conklin on a questionable decision by Jets Coach Robert Saleh to go for it on 4th-and-2 with two minutes left in the first half but he also had some shaky tackling and coverage in the second half). Cam Dantzler’s return in Detroit is much needed, especially with Evans back in concussion protocol.
I thought Cam Bynum had his best game of the season with an excellent read on his game-ending interception, and he had two other pass break-ups to go along with seven tackles. Harrison Smith had a fine game with his interception, eight tackles, and three passes defended.
Perhaps the Vikings defense can limit the yards against if the second corner spot opposite Patrick Peterson can be solidified with Dantzler and Evans and if Sullivan can be more consistent along with the linebackers covering better and the pass rush returning to early season form. The Lions No. 7 ranked offense will provide a big test.
5. What was up with Cousins’ uncharacteristic inaccuracy against the Jets even when not under pressure? He didn’t turn it over but had many misses with the Hockenson overthrow, in Kirk’s words, the “most egregious.” Cousins was off his game at times, but also give credit to the Jets and especially should-be-Pro Bowl defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (1 sack, 2 QB hits, 3 tackles for loss) for making it difficult for Cousins and the Vikings interior offensive line. Cousins took several hard hits but again showed his toughness in the second quarter as he absorbed a hard tackle on a 3rd-and-9 run for a key first down and followed it up with the 38-yard deep ball to Jalen Reagor on which he was hit hard as he released the ball.
The O-line did open holes for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison to rush for a combined 100 yards and 2 TDs. And they stepped up their protection while Cousins got in a good rhythm as he went 5 for 5, for 62 yards on the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter that included the perfect 10-yard corner end zone throw to Justin Jefferson that needed time for his route to develop. The play culminated a much-needed seven play, 75 yard drive.
6. Jefferson’s battle with the Jets two excellent corners — Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed — was fun to watch. J.J. put a great move on Reed on the winning TD, and he again showed his toughness against a defense that tried to play rough with him. It was a less productive day for J.J. from whom so much is always expected, but he did have seven receptions for 45 yards along with 11 yards rushing, and Cousins missed him running open on several occasions.
7. Kevin O’Connell had to be relieved by Greg Joseph’s perfect kicking game as he went 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 51-yarder to open the scoring, and he was 3-for-3 on extra points as he adjusted his PAT kicking to boot from the left hash mark. All five of his kickoffs produced touchbacks which is always a good thing.
8. I said going into the tough four-game stretch against winning teams in Buffalo, Dallas, New England, and the Jets that splitting those games to reach 9-3 would be a good outcome. The Vikings wound up going 3-1 instead, and they face only one team with a winning record the rest of the season — the 7-4-1 Giants here on Christmas Eve. However, I think the games at Detroit this Sunday and at Green Bay on New Year’s Day (brrr) will be the toughest remaining games before playoff time.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The Vikings will face a hot Lions offense. Jared Goff has seven TD passes and only one interception in the last five games. He threw for 340 yards and 2 TDs in the win over the Jaguars, and the Lions scored TDs or field goals on all eight possessions other than kneeldowns at the end. The Lions will be seeking revenge after blowing 14-0 and 24-14 leads in their 28-24 loss to the Vikings in Week 3. And the Vikings’ 2021 playoff hopes were significantly damaged by their Week 13 last-play loss in Detroit (on the Goff to Amon-Ra St. Brown TD pass in front of Dantzler when the Lions were winless at the time).
2. Aaron Rodgers quieted the start Jordan Love talk temporarily as he started despite his rib injury and led the Packers to a come-from-behind 28-19 win in Chicago. Rookie receiver Christian Watson continued his late-season surge with two TDs (one rushing, one receiving…he now has seven TDs in the last four games).
3. It was the 49ers fifth straight win as they beat the Dolphins 33-17 with their top-ranked D forcing three turnovers. Rookie seventh-rounder Brock Purdy stepped in for Jimmy G and played ok (210 passing yards, 2 TDs, 1 interception, sacked three times). It’s unfortunate to see any player get hurt, but the Vikings have to view this as a positive development since Garoppolo was playing very well the past several weeks, and there’s a decent chance the Purple will face San Fran in the second round of the playoffs if both teams advance out of the first round (the way the seeds appear to be headed).
4. Deshaun Watson did nothing significant in the Browns win over an awful Houston team, and it was good to hear the Texans crowd booing Watson whenever he stepped on the field.
5. Joe Burrow continued his mastery of the Chiefs with his third straight win over K.C. in a 27-24 triumph to elevate the Bills into the AFC’s No. 1 seed. In the NFC, the No. 1 Eagles improved to 11-1 as they dominated Tennessee 35-10 behind Jalen Hurts 380 yards passing and four total TDs.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl