On the fourth play of Sunday’s game, New York Jets quarterback Mike White forced a pass to Corey Davis. Camryn Bynum tipped it, and Harrison Smith picked it off. Smith ran to the right sideline, then to the left. At one point, he started yelling at Patrick Peterson to get his attention.
“I was actually, like, screaming at him when I started cutting it back,” Smith said, “and he was right in front of me. I was already tired. I could tell he heard me, but he was thinking like maybe I was trying to direct him blocking.”
Smith eventually got Peterson’s attention and lateraled the ball to him. The Jets forced Peterson out of bounds, rendering the play ineffective. The Minnesota Vikings only ran three plays after Smith’s pick and had to kick a field goal. But Smith’s lateral to Peterson was singular, not only because he had never pulled it off in his 11-year career.
It’s because it was the only unique thing that happened in Minnesota’s 27-22 win.
We’ve seen everything else.
The Vikings were up 20-6 at halftime but were punchless in the third quarter. They let the Jets back in to the extent that New York had a chance to win it. However, Bynum picked White with 10 seconds left to seal it.
Letting a team back in when the game felt like it was over in the first half? It felt like the Chicago Bears game. Minnesota had a chance to put the Bears away and let them make it a game in Week 5. Déjà vu eight weeks later.
“I did think we had a couple opportunities play-pass wise, we had T.J. (Hockenson) down the field one time for a chance at an explosive, and then Justin (Jefferson) kind of crossing the field there,” Kevin O’Connell said after the game.
“We just couldn’t convert those plays, and whether it’s Kirk (Cousins) throwing to T.J. Hockenson or Justin Jefferson in those looks, we felt great about the looks. I felt the line held up in those moments, and I expect those guys to make those plays, and they will, and they have all season long. Would have helped with that lull, and then just another example of us really not taking advantage of a lead at halftime, and then ultimately coming out and putting somebody away.”
New York outgained the Vikings 486 to 287, but they scored their first 15 points off field goals. The Jets were one for six in the red zone. A bend-but-don’t-break unit? Sounds pretty familiar.
“Big game, man. That’s what we try to pride ourselves in,” said Jordan Hicks. “Obviously, we gotta play more stingy there in the second half and not let them back into the game. When they were in the red zone, I think we did a hell of a job keeping them out. But we can’t let them get back in, so that’s something we gotta work on.”
Cousins looking a little off when facing pressure? We saw that in Philadelphia and against the Dallas Cowboys – Minnesota’s two losses this season. Cousins finished 21 of 35 for 173 yards, but he only took two sacks for 14 yards.
He was under less pressure than he was against Dallas, which was untenable. Still, the typically accurate quarterback couldn’t hit open receivers downfield, even when he had time in the pocket. Had he been able to, the Vikings could have blown the game wide open.
“I think the one to T.J. was the most egregious miss,” said Cousins. “That was just a miss. Gave it too much. There were a couple my feet were ahead of the play, so I’m hitching, and my feet are telling me to release it, but the play hasn’t really developed yet, and so some of that’s press coverage that slows down the route.
“They’ve got to negotiate the route. They’re not running it on air, so the timing was something that I needed to go back and watch and make sure that I’m slowing down my drop, if that makes sense, to make sure I’m not ahead of the read or ahead of the play. That’s part of it.”
However, Cousins’ willingness to take hits to make plays in the pocket and while scrambling is inspiring his teammates. He’s notoriously durable, something he credits to a higher power and professionals who help his body convalesce after games. Still, he’s taking massive hits to buy an extra second in the pocket or run for a first down.
“He doesn’t show it; he doesn’t flinch,” says O’Neill. “[Cousins] doesn’t budge, no matter the situation, he’s locked in, focused, ready to go. He finds calm in the huddle. He’s the man. He’s the man! Eight’s the man.”
Cousins leading winning drives is different. The defense wasn’t always able to hold firm in Mike Zimmer’s final seasons with the Vikings. And there’s a different vibe in the locker room. Minnesota is routinely doing just enough to win, and with the exception of Monday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas disaster, it has been enough.
“It grows each time, which is pretty much every week at this point, the confidence,” says Harrison Smith. “We always talk about [that] we don’t need to make it that way. But we just tend to be doing that. But it’s good practice for us. It’s not always what we want, but if you’re getting reps in – that’s a high-stress environment.
“All these games are playoff environments in the fourth quarter, but that’s not how you draw it up, but that could pay dividends.”
Will it be enough against one of the NFC’s best teams in the playoffs? The Vikings would have clinched a spot in the postseason if the Detroit Lions had lost on Sunday. Instead, they can clinch it by beating the Lions on the road next week.
We won’t know if Minnesota’s brinksmanship will work in an elimination setting until the regular season ends. But they kind of are who they are at this point. It’s not like the Jets game was an anomaly. We’ve seen this all before. Except for Smith lateraling the ball to a teammate, which happened a minute and a half into the game.