Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
A much better-than-expected 2022 Vikings season thus far saw another exciting victory on Thanksgiving night with the 33-26 win over a solid New England team. It’s another feather in the cap for Kevin O’Connell, who was able to get his team refocused on a short week and design an excellent game plan after the Dallas loss as he beat Bill Belichick, the coach who drafted him as a Patriots quarterback 14 years ago.
The Vikings winning formula this season continued as they scored a TD on an incredible opening drive for the seventh time in 11 games and made the big plays in all three phases to come from behind once again in the second half to secure the victory, outscoring the Pats 10-0 in the final quarter to win a game that was tied five different times. And, of course, Justin Jefferson had another phenomenal performance (9 catches, 139 yards, 1 TD) as he broke Randy Moss’ NFL record for most receiving yards in a player’s first three seasons (J.J. is now at 4,248 yards).
The 9-2 Vikings hope they healed and rested up during the mini-bye before they seek to clinch the NFC North this Sunday if they beat the 7-4 Jets combined with a Detroit loss at home against Jacksonville. If one or none of those things happen this week, then the Vikings can clinch the division the following week in Detroit.
Coming off a dominant 31-10 win over the Bears, who were without their QB Justin Fields, the Jets will bring a top 10 defense (ranked No. 6) into U.S. Bank Stadium for the third straight week after similar tests against the Cowboys and Patriots. The Jets also have new confidence on offense after the QB change from Zach Wilson to Mike White, who threw for 315 yards and 3 TDs against Chicago.
This is a season in which the Vikings are now 8-0 in one-score games with six come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter and overtime. I’ve watched the Vikings since their debut season in 1961 and spent 23 years in the team’s front office. I have seen a lot of exciting seasons, including four that wound up in the Super Bowl, and I have fond memories of so many regular seasons that took us to division titles and top seeds in the postseason.
Of course, the ultimate success of the 2022 Vikings will be determined by what happens in the playoffs, and a big part of that potential success will hinge on the team maintaining one of the top two NFC seeds so they can host at least one and possibly as many as three playoff games in their raucous stadium. The Vikings currently have a two-game lead on the 49ers for the No. 2 seed and still trail the 10-1 Eagles by one game for the No.1 seed and a first-round bye (plus the Eagles have the head-to-head win).
But if we look at regular seasons in Vikings history, I think this season has been the most exciting in terms of thrilling, dramatic wins, with the Buffalo and New England victories leading the way.
Here are my other reactions to the Thanksgiving night win and thoughts heading into the J-E-T-S Jets coming to town:
1. Kirk Cousins made a lot of great throws against a Belichick defense that mixed up coverages and focused on Jefferson as expected. There was a lot of J.J. in motion and quick passes in the game plan, which was a good change after the issues against Dallas. Cousins also threw an interception early and had two other passes that could’ve been picked without great plays by Jefferson to break up one pass and K.J. Osborn to strong-arm the ball from a defender with eight minutes remaining. Overall, it was an excellent game for Cousins (30 of 37 for 299 yards, 3 TDs) on the national stage, and he drew high praise from Belichick post-game, who said, “Cousins is tough. They made a lot of good plays, throws, checks. He’s a good player.”
2. Speaking of toughness, Jefferson and Adam Thielen are extremely tough players who come back repeatedly from big hits. J.J. was hit hard by Devin McCourty on the 36-yard reception that set up the winning TD pass from Cousins to Thielen. It’s amazing how Jefferson can maintain control of the ball on contested catches, often in double coverage, and he did it twice on big plays against the Pats.
Thielen hurt his knee on a first-quarter reception but stayed in the game. In the third quarter, he was speared by a vicious hit from behind and again played on in a 9-catch game that included the winning score on a great crossing route where he benefited from Jefferson drawing triple coverage.
3. The game-winning 15-yard TD pass to Thielen was a prime example of how Jefferson impacts the game even when he doesn’t make a catch. In this case, he drew the extra defenders on his crossing route to free up Thielen from the other side. Cousins made a great throw, and the offensive line provided excellent protection on a play that needed time to develop (and that O’Connell had tried to call several times in the game before getting the look he and Cousins needed to execute a huge play).
4. I thought this was one of the best games this season for the Vikings O-line that was missing a top tackle in Christian Darrisaw. They were facing a rugged defense that, as O’Connell said, had the league-leading sacker in Matthew Judon and a strong interior pass rush. Judon had a few pressures but no sacks, as left tackle Blake Brandel got help when needed, and right tackle Brian O’Neill played at his usual high level. I was impressed by the inside play of center Garrett Bradbury and right guard Ed Ingram who took a positive step forward in this game.
5. The Pats are tough to run on, but to his credit, O’Connell stuck with the running game to help set up play action. Dalvin Cook kept pounding it with only 42 yards on 22 carries, but he hung onto the ball. And O’Connell was smart to run Cook three times to keep the clock moving and force Belichick to use his last two timeouts on the Vikings final drive.
6. T.J. Hockenson continues to be a difference-maker. He had five more catches for 43 yards and 1 TD and now has 26 receptions since his trade to Minnesota — the most catches in NFL history by a tight end in his first four games with a team. He converted on third down, and the Vikings had a good day with 8 of 15 in this critical category while holding the Pats to 3 of 11 on third and fourth down.
7. The other good news for the Vikings defense was holding the Patriots to 0 for 3 on red zone TDs after Minnesota ranked last in the league coming in. The pass rush showed up late with critical sacks by Danielle Hunter and Ross Blacklock on the last two New England drives. And Patrick Peterson showed his vet savvy by tackling Kendrick Bourne inbounds on the last drive to help run out the clock. The bad news was 409 total yards allowed (364 net yards passing) against a team that had scored only three points the week before on offense. The overall defense and especially the pass defense — now ranked dead last in the league — must be better come playoff time unless the D can come up with a lot of takeaways which they’ve done most of the season but not in the last two weeks.
The pass defense still allows too many completions and yards in intermediate zones, and the Vikings were fortunate Mac Jones had some pressure on him and didn’t connect with an open Nelson Agholor (with Chandon Sullivan perhaps pushed off) as the Patriots tried to rally late. Duke Shelley was picked on and gave up some big plays, including a 40-yarder to DeVante Parker to set up a third-quarter field goal (after a critical replay overturn of Hunter Henry’s catch just across the goal line). On the positive side, Shelley also had a nice endzone breakup at the end of the first half to hold the Pats to a field goal.
Minnesota’s rushing D was decent, but I was surprised the Patriots didn’t try to run more (only 13 times) with an excellent, hard running back in Rhamondre Stevenson, who was more impactful in the passing game (9 catches, 76 yards).
8. Special teams played a big part in this win, with Kene Nwangwu’s 97-yard kickoff return for his third career return touchdown a massive play after the Pats had gone ahead 23-16 early in the third quarter. There were excellent blocks by C.J. Ham and Josh Metellus on the play. Ryan Wright drew a running into the kicker call to keep the game-winning drive alive (and he did a nice job of embellishment to help draw the flag). Wright also had a terrific 52.7-yard average with three punts inside the 20.
On the downside on special teams, the Vikings allowed a 46-yard kickoff return by Marcus Jones, and Greg Joseph missed his fifth extra point this season (odd that he’s 15 for 15 on field goals inside the 50 but has all these missed PATs).
9. With the mini-bye, the Vikings need to get Dalvin Tomlinson back from his calf injury for his run defense and inside pass rush. It also will help the Purple cause to see the return, if possible, from concussions by Darrisaw and Akayleb Evans, who is more talented than Shelley, as the team awaits Cam Dantzler’s expected return off injured reserve in Detroit if his ankle is recovered. We won’t see second-round corner Andrew Booth Jr. again in 2022, hitting injured reserve on Tuesday.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. The Eagles beat the now 4-8 Packers 40-33 with Jalen Hurts rushing for a team record (for a QB) 157 yards and throwing for 3 TDs. Aaron Rodgers left the game in the second half with an oblique injury, and Jordan Love played well with 113 yards passing and one TD. We’ll see if Love gets the start at Chicago next week.
2. The Browns beat the Bucs 23-17 in OT in what apparently is Jacoby Brissett’s last game as the starter, with Deshaun Watson unfortunately expected to return in Houston against his old team on Sunday. Here’s hoping the lousy Texans rise up and beat the Browns and Watson after all his sexual assault/sexual harassment lawsuits and settlements in Houston.
3. The Bengals beat the Titans in Nashville in a rematch — with the same result — of their playoff win last January. Cincinnati moved into a tie for the AFC North lead after Baltimore was upset by Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville. The Bengals host the AFC-leading Chiefs on Sunday, while the Ravens host beleaguered Russell Wilson and his 3-8 Broncos.
4. I enjoyed the John Madden tributes by the NFL and the networks this past week. I got to know John when he was Raiders head coach and even better during his many years as the best NFL TV analyst ever. He was always nice and down to earth. My only gripe with John was when he and the Raiders beat my Vikings in Super Bowl XI in my first season working for the Purple. Here’s a bit of Madden trivia—he’s a Minnesota native born in Austin.
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