Sunday was the perfect microcosm of the 2022 Minnesota Vikings. They played a close game as their defense bled yards again. The Vikings were 11-0 in one-score games during the regular season. But they came up on the losing side in the game that mattered the most.
The offense played a mostly brilliant game, even as Justin Jefferson was boxed up. T.J. Hockenson torched the New York Giants for the second time in four games, catching 10 passes for 129 yards. However, he will be best remembered for catching a checkdown pass short of the first-down marker on a fourth-and-eight to end the season.
Kirk Cousins is taking a lot of the blame for throwing that pass. But while the play itself left much to be desired, we shouldn’t forget how poorly the defense played. The Vikings’ defense gave up 431 yards, the 10th time in 18 games that they surrendered at least 400 yards. Veteran players will surely be replaced in the offseason. Will Minnesota let defensive coordinator Ed Donatell go as well?
Although it was a disappointing way to end the season, we shouldn’t view this season as a disappointment overall. The Vikings exceeded expectations with a rookie head coach. Kevin O’Connell will enter his second offseason with a better understanding of the players he has inherited. Hopefully, getting back some injured rookies from the 2022 draft class gives them younger contributors and starters along the roster. This week is bleak, but the future is bright.
Here are five numbers that tell the story of the Vikings-Giants game.
In his first playoff game, Jefferson only caught one pass for four yards in the second half. The Giants did all they could to hold him in check. Three defenders surrounded Jefferson on Minnesota’s final offensive play. Because of this, Cousins checked down to Hockenson, who was five yards short of the first-down marker.
Jefferson was getting involved early in the game, but his overall production was still minimal. His final stat line was seven catches, but for only 47 yards. After chasing the single-season receiving record for 16 weeks, Jefferson cooled off. Minnesota’s opponents held him under 100 yards in the final three games to end the year.
Despite Jefferson’s lack of production, his presence opened up the rest of the passing game. Cousins took advantage, finishing with a passer rating of 112.9. This was the product of completing 31 of 39 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Minnesota’s first touchdown came when Cousins snuck in on a one-yard run.
Cousins was also protected pretty well all day, as he didn’t take any sacks. Some will call his final pass to Hockenson too conservative, but Cousins had Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence barreling down on him. The pass may not have been what was drawn up, but Cousins did what he could to keep the ball in play.
After preaching “situational football” all year, the Vikings’ defense failed on the season’s biggest stage. They forced only two punts all day, as one came after a brutal drop on third down that would have almost iced the game for the Giants before the two-minute warning. Two additional drives that didn’t end in points came at the end of each half as New York opted for kneel-downs.
The two key takeaways that swung momentum in the Vikings’ favor on Christmas Eve were missing on Sunday. Minnesota allowed the Giants to control the ball and eat up yardage. It was the fifth time the Vikings failed to force a turnover all season. They were 1-4 in those games.
Daniel Jones looked like a franchise quarterback for the second time in four games. The fourth-year quarterback threw for 301 yards on Sunday, his highest output in a victory this season. His previous high in a victory was 217 yards against the Packers in Week 5.
It was his third-highest output in the entire season. He threw for 341 yards against the Lions in a Week 11 loss and then 334 yards against, you guessed it, the Vikings three weeks ago.
Jones hurt the Vikings on the ground as well. He ran for 78 yards on 17 carries. That’s only 4.6 yards-per-rush, but it also includes his four kneel-downs. Take those out, and he ran 13 times for 82 yards, a healthy 6.3 yards-per-carry.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), only six of these runs came off of scrambles. The Giants drew up sweeps for Jones in addition to the times he’d keep the ball on run-pass options (RPOs). When the two teams played on Christmas Eve, Jones ran only four times but for 34 yards. The Giants were much more intentional in getting him to use his legs on Sunday.