Four hours before the Vikings’ Thanksgiving night game against the Patriots, Kevin O’Connell walked into his home locker room at US Bank Stadium and was amazed at how many players were already in the building.
The team had absorbed their worst loss ever in Minneapolis four days earlier; Thursday night’s game presented the Vikings with an opportunity to quickly erase that 37-point loss to the Cowboys. If they felt that game was out of character, the 33-26 victory they pulled against the Patriots – sweating the entire way – was a return to form that put them on the edge of the precipice of an NFC North title.
“It kind of shows how excited the guys were to come out here and show that energy, that excitement, that brotherhood that we have in this locker room,” said wide receiver Adam Thielen. “I think that’s what helped us prevail.”
After Kirk Cousins found Thielen for a go-ahead touchdown with 9:40 left, the Vikings’ pass rush conjured up its biggest plays of the night, capping the Patriots’ last two drives with sacks by Danielle Hunter and Khyiris Tonga.
The win improved the Vikings’ record to 9-2, giving them a chance to clinch the NFC North at home with a win against the Jets next Sunday and losses of the Packers and Lions.
Cousins, who threw one interception in the first half, completed 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. The one in Thielen came on a play the Vikings had tried calling several times; Cousins had exited the game when the Patriots did not present the defense they wanted.
The quarterback got to the line of scrimmage before his headphones went off; he could hear O’Connell say, “We get it [we wanted].” The Patriots played with Devin McCourty as their only deep safety, following Justin Jefferson across the field; Thielen crossed to the opposite side, carrying a touchdown pass into the left back corner of the end zone behind Jalen Mills.
“I was stubborn [with that call]”O’Connell said with a smile.” I would keep finding the look we were going for, and like great coaching staffs do, they were able to vary a few things. Our entire group was ready – pocket clean. I think Kirk had three or four hits right there. Even if it’s a play pass, you still need to block the man above you and block the edges. I thought it was one of the cleanest pockets all night. We figured we’d have one of those guys; Kirk made a great decision and an incredible shot in that moment.”
The Patriots returned after winning the opening coin toss, giving the ball first to the Vikings. And for the seventh time in 11 games this season, the Vikings scored on their first drive.
After Jefferson had called for quicker passes on Monday to help ease the pressure on Cousins, the Vikings opened with a string of short throws, including a quick 7-yard completion on their third play for Jefferson’s first catch of the game. The drive ended with Cousins hit Jefferson on a crossing path for a touchdown, putting the Vikings up 7-0.
The Patriots, who failed to score an offensive touchdown last week, came back with a quick TD drive engineered by big plays.
Jakobi Meyers’ diving catch gave New England a 24-yard gain on its first play, and with the Patriots up 34 from the Vikings, Nelson Agholor ran a go from the slot. Chandon Sullivan passed Agholor to Vikings safeties, and Agholor slid downfield into a seam between Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum, catching Mac Jones’ pass for a 34-yard touchdown.
Two Viking possessions later, Cousins pitched to center for KJ Osborn with New England tackle Daniel Ekuale diving on the quarterback’s ankles 3.25 seconds after the snap. Cousins’ pass flew over Osborn’s head, and Jonathan Jones intercepted it to set up a Patriots field goal.
Cousins took to a podium smiling after the game as he talked about the Vikings’ ninth win of the season. He won’t keep him, he said, from a critical look at the shots he missed.
“That’s the way I am, man,” he said. “I go back there and think about all the plays I need to be better. I probably drive my family crazy like this, but that’s just the way I’m wired. I’m kind of obsessed with getting better, so even when things they’re good, my mind goes, ‘How can they be better?’ “
But Cousins will also examine throws to Jefferson who slotted into Patriots double teams, like the 37-yarder in which Jefferson’s brilliant over-the-shoulder catch set up a touchdown for TJ Hockenson.
The score put the Vikings up 16-13 at halftime after kicker Greg Joseph missed his fifth extra point of the season.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, who finished with a career-high 382 yards, brought the Patriots into field goal range before halftime with completions of 22, 16, 14, and 13 yards.
The Patriots continued pitching to start the second half. Jones, with plenty of sitting time in his pocket, found the receivers in space in center field. On a
second and 10 by the Vikings 37, threw to center for tight end Hunter Henry out of play. Henry evaded Bynum’s diving tackle attempt and rushed into the end zone for the 23-16 Patriots.
The Vikings’ response came in the form of one of several game-changing special teams plays.
Kene Nwangwu took the next kickoff at the Vikings 3, took a block down the left sideline and came out into the open. His 97-yard return, the third touchdown return of his career, tied the score at 23.
Jones chased Duke Shelley on the Patriots next drive as he had done most of the night, hitting DeVante Parker 41 yards to put the Patriots in position for another touchdown. But after officials ruled that Henry scored on a 6-yard pass from Jones, a review found that he had lost the ball as he fell to the ground. The Patriots settled for a field goal to make it 26-23.
“I thought we were going to look for a quarter and inch, or it was incomplete,” O’Connell said. “It’s one of those things that could have gone a lot of different ways, but I was very happy that it did.”
The Vikings tied the score after Cousins led another drive for a field goal. The defense forced just its second three-and-out of the night (after a pressure from Harrison Smith on one of the Vikings’ first blitzes of the game) and a penalty breathed new life into the Vikings on what turned out to be a go-ahead trip.
Patriots running back Pierre Strong’s helmet hit Ryan Wright’s foot following his second punt of the night, and officials called Strong for running into the kicker, giving the Vikings a first down.
Cousins hit Jefferson 36 yards to double coverage two plays later. Then came the touchdown on the play that O’Connell and Cousins had been waiting for all night.
“Kirk did a good job reading it and shooting it in there,” Thielen said. “He was very close to getting a tip, but I’m glad we completed it.”
And the Vikings, as they have done so many times this season, managed to keep their season from veering off course.