When Thanksgiving ended, they had reached 9-2 the hard way. But the Minnesota Vikings will take it.
Minnesota has won yet another one-score game. It’s the only way they know how to win this season, apparently; the Vikings have the NFL’s second-best winning percentage but the 14th-best point differential. All but one of their victories this year have come by eight or fewer points and often include some nail-biting finish. See Week 10 in Buffalo for recent dramatic proof.
But while Thursday night’s game ended the way so many others had this season, there was something different this time around. The team was coming off an embarrassing loss to the Dallas Cowboys last weekend — one of those games where nothing went their way. They needed a win this week, four-day turnaround be damned. And as the fake snow fell as part of pregame festivities at U.S. Bank Stadium on a chilly Minnesota Thanksgiving night, a resolve came with it.
The neon lights were bright, a SKOL chant roared from the crowd. But on the field? On No. 8’s face, in particular? It was nothing but calm.
In the first Thanksgiving game hosted in Minnesota, all eyes were on the Vikings yet again. Prime time has nearly always spelled trouble for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Early on, this game looked to follow that exact narrative too, with Cousins getting picked off by New England’s Jonathan Jones in the first quarter. But that prior calm never left his face. Even when Minnesota only scored a field goal on their next possession, Cousins kept at it. They scored a touchdown following that and took the lead.
There were five lead changes during the game. There were five even scores, too. New England moved at will against a lacking Vikings secondary, down multiple starters and giving up the second-most yards of any team in the league prior to the game. Minnesota couldn’t get pressure for most of the game, either. Probably a symptom of interior lineman Dalvin Tomlinson being inactive yet again. But the Vikings’ confidence still didn’t waver.
“We don’t have any doubt at all,” said veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. “With the guys we have in this locker room, we understand how to prepare and win ballgames. We’ve done it throughout the season, thus far […] If we can continue that going, continue to build confidence, we’ll see where it takes us in the long haul.”
Thursday was a test of that confidence, especially as it pertains to players like cornerback Duke Shelley, the team’s fourth-string corner. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones picked on Shelley all night to mixed results. The Vikings gave up a total of 364 yards through the air on 39 pass attempts from Jones.
Towards the end of the game, Minnesota seemed to finally start getting creative up front, and results followed. They sacked Jones twice in the fourth quarter after only getting to him once before. Danielle Hunter got one on third down just before the two-minute warning that forced the Patriots into a fourth-and-16 try. Ross Blacklock got one that took a precious 25 seconds off the clock in the final minute. The defense figured things out by the end and closed.
The offense, meanwhile, kept Minnesota in the game during the time in between. The Vikings completed 81.6% of their passes on the night. That’s the second-highest completion percentage against a Bill Belichick-led Patriots team ever.
It was in large part thanks to wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who caught all but two of his targets. He needed just 55 yards coming into the game to break the record for most receiving yards by any player in his first three seasons; a record previously held by Randy Moss. Jefferson caught nine of 11 passes thrown his way for 139 yards and a touchdown. And would you believe that’s only the fifth-highest total of the season for him?
Following the loss to Dallas, in addition to calling it ‘embarrassing’ and saying that wasn’t Vikings football the way it’s meant to be played, Jefferson called for more adjustments within the offense and within the game. They had done the same thing over and over again against the Cowboys to abysmal results.
Jefferson got his adjustments on Sunday against a very good New England defense.
“They definitely gave us some mixed coverages throughout the game, doubled me a few times, but that didn’t stop Kirk [Cousins] from giving me those 50/50 balls or letting me go up and catch them,” said Jefferson after the game. “This whole year, ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been asking him to do it. I feel like every single week he’s getting more and more confident to give me those type of balls and I just love going out there and making a play.”
Those 50/50 balls mostly came down the field. Jefferson caught his 21st pass of 20 or more yards during the game. He’s now surpassed Tyreek Hill’s total this year. His six-yard touchdown pass came on Minnesota’s first drive of the game, the fourth time he’s done that this season. No other player in the NFL has more than two opening-drive receiving touchdowns.
Jefferson also completed a pass to Adam Thielen on the drive too, becoming the first player to complete a pass and catch a touchdown on an opening drive since 2004.
This brand of Vikings football is fun, albeit probably stressful for Minnesota fans. But they are coming out on the right side of these games for the first time in a while. They were 6-8 in one-score contests last season. They’ve won all eight so far this year.
Their pass defense will be a bigger problem against better teams down the stretch. If adjustments were needed on offense coming into this game, Minnesota will have to venture out of its Cover-2 comfort zone going forward. They don’t have the healthy personnel to run it. But should Tomlinson return next weekend — and all signs point to him doing so — they might have a hope and a prayer of getting to quarterbacks before they can throw, and take some pressure off the ailing secondary.
Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings eat turkey legs on the field after defeating the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images.)
“My goal here is to have our organization ready to put it all together, even when people don’t give us a chance or when adversity hits,” said O’Connell after the game. “That’s when I happen to believe the best parts of our team come out. I think that will continue to serve us well as we continue to improve as a football team this year.”
These wins haven’t come easy for the Vikings this season, but they’ll take 9-2. Even if it’s the hard way.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more