Four hours before the Vikings’ Thanksgiving game against the Patriots, Kevin O’Connell walked into the home locker room at US Bank Stadium and was surprised by how many players were already in the building.
The team had absorbed its worst loss ever in Minneapolis four days earlier; game on Thursday night gave the Vikings an opportunity to quickly erase the 37-point loss against the Cowboys. If they felt the play was out of character, the 33-26 victory they produced against the Patriots — who sweated it out the entire way — was a return to the form that has them on the brink of an NFC North title.
“It just 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,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think that’s what helped us win.”
After Kirk Cousins found Thielen for a go-ahead touchdown with 9:40 left, the Vikings’ pass rush conjured up the biggest play of the night, stopping the Patriots’ final two drives with sacks by Danielle Hunter and Khyiris Tonga.
The win improved the Vikings’ record to 9-2, giving them a chance to win the NFC North at home with a win against the Jets next Sunday and losses by the Packers and Lions.
Cousins, who overcame an interception in the first half, completed 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. The one until Thielen came up with a play the Vikings had tried to call several times; Cousins had checked out of the play when the Patriots didn’t present the defense they wanted.
The quarterback made it to the line of scrimmage before his headset went off; he could hear O’Connell say, “We got the look [we wanted].” Playing with Devin McCourty as their only deep safety, the Patriots followed Justin Jefferson across the field; Thielen crossed to the opposite side, hauling in a touchdown pass in the back left corner of the end zone behind Jalen Mills.
“I was stubborn [with that call],” O’Connell said with a smile. “I was going to continue to find the look we were looking for, and like good coaching staffs do, they were able to vary some things. Our whole group was ready – clean pocket. I think Kirk had three or four problems 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 throw in that moment.”
The Patriots punted 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 on the opening drive.
After Jefferson called for quicker passes on Monday to ease the pressure on Cousins, the Vikings opened with a series 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 hitting Jefferson on a crossing route 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 fueled by big plays.
Jakobi Meyers’ diving catch gave New England a 24-yard gain on its first play, and with the Patriots at the Vikings’ 34, Nelson Agholor ran a go route from the slot. Chandon Sullivan passed Agholor to the Vikings safety, and Agholor streaked down the field in a seam between Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum, catching Mac Jones’ pass for a 34-yard touchdown.
Two Vikings possessions later, Cousins threw over the middle to KJ Osborn with New England tackle Daniel Ekuale diving at the quarterback’s ankles 3.25 seconds after the snap. Cousins’ pass sailed over Osborn’s head, and Jonathan Jones intercepted it to set up a Patriots field goal.
Cousins stood at a podium and smiled after the game as he talked about the Vikings’ ninth win of the season. That won’t keep him, he said, from a critical review of the throws he missed.
“This is how I am, man,” he said. “I go back there and think about all the plays I need to make to get better. I’m probably driving my family crazy being this way, but that’s just the way I’m wired. I’m kind of obsessed with improvement, so even when things are good, my thoughts go to: ‘How can they be better?’ “
But Cousins will also consider throws to Jefferson he fit between the Patriots’ double teams, like the 37-yarder in which Jefferson’s slick over-the-shoulder catch set up a touchdown to TJ Hockenson.
The score made it 16-13 for the Vikings late in the first half after kicker Greg Joseph missed his fifth extra point of the season.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, who finished with a career-high 382 yards, drove the Patriots into field goal range before halftime with completions of 22, 16, 14 and 13 yards.
The Patriots continued to throw to start the second half. Jones, with plenty of time to sit in the pocket, found receivers in space over the middle of the field. On a
second-and-10 from the Vikings 37, he threw over the middle to tight end Hunter Henry off play action. Henry avoided Bynum’s diving tackle attempt and burst into the end zone to make it 23-16 Patriots.
The Vikings’ answer 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 broke into the open. His 97-yard return, the third kick return TD of his career, tied for 23rd.
Jones went after Duke Shelley on the Patriots’ next drive as he had done much of the night, and hit DeVante Parker 41 yards to put the Patriots in position for another touchdown. But after officials ruled Henry scored on a 6-yard pass from Jones, a review found he had lost the ball when he went to ground. The Patriots settled for a field goal that made it 26-23.
“I thought we’d either see 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 went the way it did.”
The Vikings tied it after Cousins led another field goal attempt. The defense forced just its second three-and-out of the night (after a Harrison Smith pressure on one of the Vikings’ first blitzes of the game) and a penalty gave the Vikings new life on what turned out to be the go-ahead. drive.
Patriots running back Pierre Strong’s helmet hit Ryan Wright’s foot as he followed up with his second punt of the night, and the officials called Strong for running into the kicker, giving the Vikings a first down.
Cousins hit Jefferson for 36 yards against 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 great job of reading it out and just firing it in there,” Thielen said. “It was pretty close to being tipped, but I’m glad we pulled it off.”
And the Vikings, as they have done so many times this season, managed to keep their season from going off course.