In Monday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints, one of the teams came in as last season’s leading offense. The other was among the league’s worst in 2016.
The roles were reversed, however, in front of a raucous U.S. Bank Stadium crowd as the Vikings earned the second-most yards of any team in Week 1 of NFL action and pulled away from the Saints in a 29-19 victory, winning their third consecutive home opener.
Minnesota would have needed half a dozen game balls to reward all of their offensive stars Monday night. Sam Bradford passed for 346 yards and three touchdowns, completed 84 percent of his passes and posted a career-high 143 passer rating. Stefon Diggs recorded 93 receiving yards on seven catches — two of which went for touchdowns, and three of which were highlight-reel worthy. Adam Thielen was less flashy but just as effective with nine catches for 157 yards.
The ground game showed up, as well, shedding some baggage from a disastrous 2016. Dalvin Cook, not to be overshadowed by Bradford’s aerial assault, rushed for 127 yards and 5.8 yards per carry in his regular season debut — better than the Vikings did in any game last year as a team.
The common thread was the offensive line, which seemed to get stronger as the game progressed. Armed with four new starters from a year ago, the unit allowed just one sack of Bradford and opened enough holes for the Vikings to gain 97 yards on the ground after halftime, including Cook runs of 32 and 33 yards.
“They answered the bell coming out of the gate,” said Cook of the offensive line. “I think those guys did a very good job. I know those guys because I practice with them every day, and I know what they’re capable of doing. They went out and showed the world what they’re capable of doing.”
After a slow first quarter, the Vikings found a spark early in the second quarter. With his team down 6-3, Bradford engineered a three-play, 74-yard drive that may have had fans reminiscing back to 1998, considering former receiver Randy Moss was in the house to be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
Bradford got things started by finding Thielen over the middle for a 35-yard catch and run, hit Jarius Wright on the sideline for 21 yards with a perfect throw while getting buried by Cameron Jordan, then found Diggs for the go-ahead touchdown on a blown coverage by De’Vante Harris.
“I think once that happened, it kind of opened the door a little bit and kind of opened things up for us,” Bradford said.
The lightning-fast drive was a microcosm of the game with Diggs and Thielen seemingly at the center of each key conversion or explosive play. When the dust settled, they had combined for 250 yards receiving.
“It’s like a relationship,” said Diggs of his camaraderie with Thielen. “Fifty-fifty, I do something for him, you do something for me. You scratch my back, I scratch your back.”
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys,” said Bradford, “and I’ve seen them make a lot of plays, whether it be in games or whether it be in training camp, so both of those guys, if they’re singled, there’s a good chance I’m probably gonna throw it their way because I do feel very confident that they’re going to go get it.”
The Diggs touchdown ignited something in the third-year receiver, who made three more catches in the game. One of them came inside the 5-yard line as he went airborne, absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit from Kenny Vaccaro and held onto the ball to set up a 1st-and-goal. Three plays later, he wrestled a fade away from Harris for his second touchdown, hanging onto the ball with one hand as he toe-tapped along the sideline.
His third-quarter encore was a 30-yard reception along the sideline despite being interfered with by Harris. It was Diggs’ biggest game since Week 10 of last season and came just 15 days after he dropped a pair of catchable balls in the third preseason game.
“I think it just gives the offense in general a lift,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of the big plays. “We ran the ball better, we hardly had any negative plays, we only had one sack, so I think all those things add to confidence.”
The Saints were the NFL’s worst pass defense a year ago, and despite overhauling the secondary and linebacking corps, New Orleans left a lot of open real estate for Vikings receivers when Diggs wasn’t making contested catches. Lax coverage combined with clean pockets aided Bradford’s scintillating night. He only had three incompletions in the finals three quarters, and one of them came on a Cook drop.
The rookie running back didn’t make many other mistakes, though. Not only did he best former Viking Adrian Peterson’s lackluster Saints debut by over 100 yards, Cook outdid Peterson’s 103-yard rookie debut, which occurred 10 years ago Saturday. Cook’s 33-yard run inside of two minutes led to a pair of kneel downs in victory formation and propelled him over the 100-yard mark.
“We wanted to get 100 yards rushing and close the game out,” said center Pat Elflein, “so we went out there and we did that.”
The Vikings’ offensive explosion was in stark contrast to their preseason performance, which netted just three points in 12 drives from the starters. The unit’s six scoring drives chewed up over 31 minutes of clock for the game, and the 29 points generated were greater than all but one offensive outing a season ago.
Suddenly, preseason is a distant memory.
“It’s good to see that the hard work that the coaches and players are doing is starting to pay off,” Zimmer said.