The defining moment of the Minnesota Vikings’ 27-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers happened with 10:49 left in the second quarter with the game tied 3-3. Kirk Cousins found Justin Jefferson open along the sidelines on third-and-15 and hit him in stride to convert the first down. After getting both feet in bounds, Jefferson stumbled and walked into the Chargers’ sideline to regain his balance. There he saw Keenan Allen out of the corner of his eye, gave him a nod, and flipped him the ball.
“That’s my dog,” said Jefferson. “I love his route running and the way he plays games.”
Jefferson’s swagger wasn’t a surprise. We know he has plenty of that. He’s also capable of reeling in a ball near the sidelines without perfect balance. No, the notable thing here is that Cousins found his star receiver on third-and-long and threw past the sticks. After all, Jefferson had to have the ball to toss it to Allen.
The Vikings team that showed up in Glendale in Week 2 was always there. But they hadn’t tapped into their latent ability to go toe-to-toe with an elite young quarterback since leaving the desert. Somehow a team that lost 34-33 to the Arizona Cardinals ducked into a shell after beating the Seattle Seahawks and became reluctant to poke its head out.
In some ways, that’s understandable. The Vikings fanbase has gone from In Zim we trust to Get rid of Zim, we must. Conventional wisdom determined that they needed a young, offensive coach. Cousins hasn’t been the final piece to the championship puzzle. Mike Zimmer’s defense got old and has undergone a makeover. As a result, he’s become conservative and defensive in a league that rewards unapologetic risk. Air the ball out. Press for one more score before halftime. Go for it on fourth down. That kind of aggressiveness is the antithesis of the Zimmer philosophy. His message no longer resonated with the vox populi.
Still, in a do-or-die game on the road, the Vikings went out and snatched a win away from the Chargers. Cousins targeted Jefferson 11 times, twice more than Jefferson had been targeted in the last two games. He finished the day with nine receptions for 143 yards. Adam Thielen had five catches for 65. Cousins spread the ball around after that, connecting with both of his running backs, tight ends, and fullback C.J. Ham. Dalvin Cook had 94 yards rushing. Zimmer baffled Justin Herbert, who was named Rookie of the Year over Jefferson last year. In short, everyone did their job. It’s just weird that it took until Week 10 to do it.
The Vikings have been involved in high-scoring affairs this year. In overtime, they beat the Carolina Panthers 34-28 and lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31. But they blew double-digit leads in both games and seemed to be hanging on for dear life at the end. Last week, the loss seemed inevitable once Minnesota squandered a 14-point lead following Kene Nwangwu’s kickoff return. They turned games against the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Dallas Cowboys into slogs, ultimately to their detriment. The Chargers game was the first time it was fun to watch the Vikings since Week 2.
Yes, it took a while to get going. And I get the irony that Klint Kubiak’s scripted drive went nowhere and that the offense suddenly got going in the middle of the game. But the Vikings needed a game like this. They needed to get the car on the freeway and open it up. It was great to see them get down in the third and find a way to pull ahead of a dangerous offense. Eventually, they had to assert themselves offensively instead of trying to squeeze the life out of their opponents defensively.
“I knew we’d been there before a few times,” Zimmer said when asked about the fourth quarter. “I told Klint, ‘Be aggressive here. Try to go score.’”
They did this all with the backdrop of Harrison Smith’s positive COVID test a week ago, which kept him out of the last two games because he’s unvaccinated. Smith had been in close contact with 29 coaches and players, and Dakota Dozier had to be hospitalized after a breakthrough case. Cook’s ex-girlfriend named him in a civil lawsuit accusing him of domestic violence (Cook says he was the victim in the incident). They came out ahead in a must-win game despite all the chaos.
A win over the Green Bay Packers next week brings the Vikings back to .500. They remain in the thick of the playoff race despite a lackluster start to the season. If Minnesota can beat the Chargers on the road, they can beat Green Bay at home. They used a formula they’ve known all along to win in LA. Cousins has to get the ball to Jefferson and Thielen. If Kubiak can write successful opening scripts, he should be able to generate offense throughout a game. Zimmer has always known how to baffle opposing quarterbacks.
But they finally put it all together against the Chargers. Jefferson could flip Allen the ball early in the second half because he knew he’d see it again, eventually.