The Vikings were in a dangerous situation on Thanksgiving night, facing a veteran New England Patriots team and the best coach in the history of the NFL. While the Vikings have gotten off to an impressive start under rookie head coach Kevin O’Connell, the whispers of fraud could be held throughout the league.
The Vikings were coming off an embarrassing 40-3 blowout at home in Week 11 to the Dallas Cowboys. Insiders and talking heads were pointing at the Vikings schedule and saying whom have they beaten? How could Minnesota bounce back against a team that is known for playing smart football and capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes?
Surely first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell would feel the pressure of competing against Belichick. The same held for Kirk Cousins, a quarterback who has struggled throughout his career in prime-time games against sharp opponents.
Neither of those things happened. The good will that had been built in the Minnesota locker room throughout the first half of the season was put to the test after the Dallas debacle, and there was no reversal of form.
The Vikings took the opening possession and smartly moved down the field and scored on a Cousins to Justin Jefferson on a 6-yard TD pass, culminating an 8-play, 80-yard drive. That was important because there was no hangover from the previous game, and the offense responded to every New England offensive thrust with one of their own.
If O’Connell was exposed in the loss to the Cowboys as a wannabe, there would have been no response against the Patriots. He would not have been able to reverse the momentum, and the Vikings would have lost another game by double digits. O’Connell would have been scratching his head and searching for answers. Instead, the Vikings (9-2) did what they have done all season. They played their best football in the fourth quarter and came away with a 33-26 victory.
O’Connell had the answer all along, and it was about keeping the faith in his offense, in general, and his quarterback, in particular.
From the instant Kwesi ofo-Mensah and O’Connell were hired, they have maintained their faith in Cousins. Few thought they knew what they were talking about and most of the questions had to do with the future of the team. Surely the new brain trust would learn that Cousins could not handle big-game situations. That had been the case under former head coach Mike Zimmer and during Cousins’ tenure in Washington.
Instead, the Vikings gave Cousins their support, and he has a cap hit of more than $31 million this year and that figure will exceed $36 million next year.
Cousins paid a big dividend on that investment against the Patriots, completing 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards with three touchdowns. He threw an early interception, but there was no panic, and he made some of the best throws he has made all season. Of course, there was a large dose of help from the spectacular Justin Jefferson and his partner am Thielen.
O’Connell said the quarterback that he has seen this year is succeeding because he has taken ownership of the offense. “We saw it in the Buffalo game and we saw it again tonight,” O’Connell said after the game. “The amount of work he has done to prepare for each opponent shows why we have been successful. We all got a lesson last Sunday, but the response has been quick and effective.”
If the offense came back to form, the defense was problematic until the late stages of the game. New England quarterback Mac Jones had a clean pocket until the last five minutes, and he threw for 382 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The stats indicate that Jones was sacked three times, but they all came late. It’s great to put pressure on at the end of the game, but there’s nothing wrong with putting the heat on early in the game. It would help the secondary immensely – an area that has been problematic for the Vikings.
Are the Vikings for real? Eight of their nine victories are by one score. They don’t fold under pressure, and they excel in the late stages.
That’s a formula that plays well in the second half of an NFL season. It’s nearly December, and the best may be yet to come.