Vikings return to form with wild, weird win over Patriots, close to winning NFC North title

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 amazed at how many players were already in the building.

The team had absorbed its worst loss ever in Minneapolis four days earlier; Thursday night’s game gave the Vikings an opportunity to quickly shake off the 37-point loss to the Cowboys. If they felt the game was out of character, the 33-26 win they produced against the Patriots — who sweated it out the whole way — was a return to the form that has them on the precipice of an NFC North title.

“It just kind of shows how excited guys were to come out here and show the energy, the excitement, the 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, halting 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 to Thielen came on a play the Vikings had tried to call several times; Cousins ​​had checked out of the game 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 have seen [we wanted].” The Patriots played with Devin McCourty as their only deep safety, following Justin Jefferson across the field; Thielen crossed to the opposite sideline and hauled a touchdown pass into the back left corner of the end zone behind Jalen Mills.

“I was stubborn [with that call],” O’Connell said with a smile. “I wanted to continue to find the look we were going 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 right there. Even if it’s a play pass, you still have 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 down. And for the seventh time in 11 games this season, the Vikings scored on their opener.

After Jefferson called for quicker passes on Monday to help 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 designed 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 sent Agholor out to the Vikings’ safety, and Agholor streaked down the field in a seam between Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum and caught 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 into the snap. Cousins’ pass sailed over Osborn’s head and Jonathan Jones intercepted it to set up a Patriots field goal.

Cousins ​​stood on a podium and smiled after the game as he recounted the Vikings’ ninth win of the season. That won’t keep him, he said, from taking a critical look back at the throws he missed.

“That’s how I am, man,” he said. “I go back there and think about all the plays I need to get better. I’m probably driving my family crazy being this way, but that’s just how I’m wired. I’m kind of obsessed with improvement, so even when things are good, my mind goes, ‘How can they get better?’ “

But Cousins ​​will also review throws to Jefferson, he fit in between Patriots double teams, like the 37-yarder where Jefferson’s smart over-the-shoulder catch set up a 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 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 stormed 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 plays.

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 23.

Jones went after Duke Shelley on the Patriots’ next drive, as he had done most of the night, and hit DeVante Parker for 41 yards to put the Patriots in position for another touchdown. But after the officials ruled Henry scored on a 6-yard pass from Jones, a review showed he had dropped the ball as he went to the ground. The Patriots settled for a field goal that made it 26-23.

“I thought we were either going to 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 the score after Cousins ​​led another drive into a field goal. The defense forced just its second three-and-out of the night (after a Harrison Smith pressure on one of the Vikings’ first drives of the game), and a penalty gave the Vikings new life on what turned out to be a go-ahead drive. 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 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 up 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 so many times this season, managed to keep their season from veering off course.

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