Four hours before the Vikings’ Thanksgiving night game against the Patriots, Kevin O’Connell walked into the home locker room at US Bank Stadium and was stunned by the number of players already in the building.
The team had endured its worst loss ever in Minneapolis four days earlier; Thursday night’s game presented the Vikings with a chance to quickly snap that 37-point defeat against the Cowboys. If they felt the game was out of character, their 33-26 victory against the Patriots — sweating them all out — was a return to form that put them on the brink of the NFC North title.
“It kind of shows how excited the guys are to come out here and show that energy, that excitement, that sisterhood that we have in this locker room,” said wide receiver Adam Thelin. “I think that’s what helped us win.”
After Kirk Cousins found Thielen for a go-ahead with 9:40 left, the Vikings pass rush called up its biggest play of the night, stopping the Patriots’ final two carries with sacks of Daniel Hunter and Jerris Tonga.
The win improved the Vikings’ record to 9-2, giving them a chance to clinch the NFC North at home with wins over the Jets the next Sunday and losses from the Packers and Lions.
Cousins, who beat off an interception in the first half, completed 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Thielen’s song came on a play the Vikings tried calling several times; Cousins was out of the play when the Patriots didn’t offer the defense they wanted.
The quarterback reached the line of scrimmage before his headset was off; He’d hear O’Connell say, “We get the look [we wanted]The Patriots played Devin McCourty as their only deep safety, following Justin Jefferson across the field; Teelin crossed to the other side, hauling 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 was going to keep looking for the form we were going for and just as great coaching staff do, they were able to change a few things. Our entire group was ready – a clean pocket. I think Kirk had three or four hitches there. Even though it’s a play pass, you still have to block the guy above you, blocking the edges. I thought this was one of the cleanest pockets of the night. We thought we’d have one of these guys; Kirk made a great decision and an incredible throw in that moment.”
The Patriots trailed after winning the opening coin toss, giving the Vikings the ball first. And for the seventh time in 11 games this season, the Vikings scored in the opening drive.
After Jefferson called for faster passes on Monday to help relieve pressure on Cousins, the Vikings opened with a series of short throws, including a 7-yard rushing completion on their third play for Jefferson’s first of the game. The drive ended with Cousins hitting Jefferson on a crosswalk for a touchdown, putting the Vikings up 7-0.
The Patriots, who didn’t score an offensive touchdown last week, came back with a quick TD drive engineered by big plays.
A diving catch by Jacoby Myers gave New England a 24-yard gain on its first play, and with the Patriots on the Vikings 34, Nelson Agholor ran a way out of the hole. Chandon Sullivan passed Agholor to a Vikings safety, and Agholor lined down the touchdown between Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum, catching a Mac Jones pass for a 34-yard touchdown.
Two Vikings possessions later, Cousins threw over the middle for KJ Osborn with New England tackle Daniel Ekuale diving into the quarterback’s ankles 3.25 seconds after the snap. A Cousins pass sailed over Osborne’s head, and Jonathan Jones intercepted it to set up a Patriots field goal.
Cousins stood on the stage smiling after the game as he spoke of the Vikings’ ninth win of the season. He said that wouldn’t stop him from taking a critical look at the shots he missed.
He said, “That’s who I am, man.” “I go back out there and think about all the plays I need to do to be better. I might be making my family crazy that way, but that’s just the way I go about it. It’s so good, my mind goes to, ‘How could they be better?’”
But Cousins would also review Jefferson’s throws that fit between the Patriots’ double teams, like a 37-yard run where Jefferson set up a brilliant over-the-shoulder touchdown to TJ Hockenson.
The score put the Vikings ahead 16-13 late in the first half after kicker Greg Joseph missed his fifth extra point of the season.
Patriots quarterback Mack Jones, who finished with a career-high 382 yards, led the Patriots to field goal range before halftime with completions of 22, 16, 14, and 13 yards.
The Patriots continued to punt to begin the second half. Jones, who had plenty of time to sit in the pocket, found receivers in the space above the middle of the field. on me
On second-and-1 off the Vikings 37, he threw over the middle to tight end Hunter Henry from the play. Henry evaded Bynum’s diving attempt and stormed into the end zone to make it 23-16 Patriots.
The Vikings’ response came in the form of one of several game-changing special teams.
Kene Nwangwu caught the ensuing kickoff at the Vikings 3, picked up a block down the left sideline and stormed into the open. His 97-yard kick return, the third TD kick return of his career, tied the score at 23.
Jones went after Duke Shelley on the Patriots’ next drive as he did all night, hitting DeVante Parker for 41 yards to put the Patriots in position for another touchdown. But after the officials ruled that Henry scored on a 6-yard pass from Jones, the review found that he had lost the ball as he fell to the ground. The Patriots settled for a field goal that made it 26-23.
“I thought we’d either be looking for fourths and inches, or it’s incomplete,” O’Connell said. “It’s one of those things that could have gone a lot of different ways, but I was so glad it went the way it did.”
The Vikings tied the score after Cousins led another field goal drive. The defense only forced three plays on the night (after pressing Harrison Smith on one of the Vikings’ first blitz of the game) and a penalty gave the Vikings new life on what turned out to be a go-ahead cut.
Patriots running back Pierre Strong’s helmet hit Ryan Wright’s leg as he followed on his second kick of the night, and the officials called out Strong for his kicking run, giving the Vikings a first down.
Cousins hit Jefferson for a 36-yard touchdown double coverage two plays later. Then came the touchdown on the play O’Connell and Cousins had been waiting for all night.
“Kirk did a good job of reading it, and then shooting it out there,” said Thelin. “It was very close to receiving the tip, but I’m glad we finished it.”
And the Vikings managed, as they have so many times this season, to prevent their season from derailing.
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