The jumbotron camera at US Bank Stadium panned toward Justin Jefferson as he walked toward the end of the tunnel during player introductions. Jefferson smiled and cupped his hand behind his right ear, then his left. The crowd noise was already at a fever pitch. But as Jefferson entered the field, it threatened to shatter the stadium’s glass wall and blow it into downtown Minneapolis.
Jefferson is a showman. He was ready for the bring lights. He always is.
“These are the type of games that I love the most,” he said after the Minnesota Vikings’ 33-26 win over the New England Patriots. “Thursday nights, primetime, the whole world is watching me. No better time to go out.”
It would have been a shame if Bill Belichick would have taken him out. Or, more pertinently, Kevin O’Connell would have allowed New England’s emperor to strike his best player down. Belichick has been in command of the Patriots for so long that he drafted O’Connell in the third round of the 2008 draft. A year later, Belichick cut O’Connell two days after a preseason game where he threw two interceptions and only three completions on 10 attempts.
Instead of harboring resentment, O’Connell cherished his time inside football’s empire. He kept his notes from team meetings and saw Belichick as a mentor once he got into coaching. But O’Connell never gushed over New England’s all-powerful head coach. He didn’t allow Belichick to take Jefferson out of the game and try to beat him with T.J. Hockenson, Adam Thielen, and the rest of his offensive weapons.
Rather, he went right at him.
On the third play of the game, he dialed up a pass to Jefferson on first-and-10. Two plays later, he had Jefferson throw a pass to Adam Thielen. Two plays later, the Vikings scored a touchdown to go up 7-0. Belichick never clamped down on Minnesota’s superstar. Jefferson finished the game with nine catches for 139 yards four days after the Dallas Cowboys held him to three catches for 33 yards in a 40-3 shellacking.
“I knew that they would try to take 18 out of the game, especially in those situational downs,” O’Connell said. “So we worked really hard, just kinda prepared him for that, some unique things that we tried.”
It wasn’t like O’Connell ignored Jefferson’s supporting cast, though. Thielen finished with nine receptions for 61 yards. Hockenson had five for 43 and his first touchdown in purple. Special teams pitched in when Kene Nwangwu ran back a kickoff return early in the third to tie the game 23-23. Ed Donatell’s defense did what it does: It bent but didn’t break. Ultimately, they won by one score – as they always do.
Interestingly, O’Connell had tried to call the play that got Thielen open in the end zone for the winning score multiple times throughout the game. But Belichick wouldn’t give the Vikings the look they wanted, and they continually checked out of the play. Still, O’Connell was persistent, continuing to call it until he got his way. With 9:34 left in the fourth, O’Connell saw an opening in the defense and relayed that to Kirk Cousins in the headset.
Cousins stepped into the throw, Thielen kept his toes in bounds, and the Vikings never looked back.
“I was stubborn,” O’Connell conceded after the game. “I was going to continue to try to find the look that we were looking for. Like great coaching staffs do on the other side, they were varying some things up. We were able to finally get kind of the look we were looking for there. But our whole group was ready.”
O’Connell came for the emperor and didn’t miss. He deployed his greatest weapon against Belichick, the master of taking away his opponent’s best player. The Vikings said they wanted to use this game to move on from the Dallas disaster. They did, and they’re back to where they were before the Cowboys game – a team that uses all three phases to win games by one score.
“This whole year, a lot of people haven’t been putting us on a pedestal a lot,” said Jefferson. “Just so much disrespect we feel they’re putting on our name, we’re just gonna keep all the all of the noise that we know inside this building, we’re gonna keep fighting every single week.”
The Vikings aren’t going to garner much more respect than they had before the Dallas game. They’re still the same team they were during the seven-game win streak. But they showed they can bounce back and continue battling for the NO. 1-seed in the NFC. Jefferson said that he wants to keep all the noise in the building. But eventually, it’s going to escape because he’s going to blow the roof off of it.