JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Vikings trailed by four points at a time when they seemed utterly incapable of scoring more than three at a time.
“It was panic mode,” linebacker Chad Greenway said after Sunday’s 25-16 win over Jacksonville at EverBank Field. “Frustration. The defense had given up only 16 points, but we were all frustrated on the sideline. We knew our season was on the line.”
Jacksonville led 16-12 with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left in the third quarter because cornerback Xavier Rhodes had, as even he described it, “a temper tantrum.” He was flagged twice for 20 yards on one third-down play when he was caught holding and punished for being so animated while arguing the call. He was pulled for two snaps, the second of which resulted in his replacement, rookie Mackensie Alexander, being flagged for a 22-yard pass interference penalty, which led to a 14-yard touchdown pass three snaps later.
“Coach [Mike] Zimmer pulled me and told me to settle down,” Rhodes said. “I hurt my team.”
Fortunately for Rhodes and the Vikings defense, running back Jerick McKinnon took over the ensuing possession with quickness, toughness, determination and a third-down jump cut that twisted linebacker Telvin Smith to the ground and froze cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
“I was on the sideline trying to get my composure,” Rhodes said. “But I saw Jerick’s cut. That was pretty sweet.”
McKinnon’s final stats are unimpressive. He ran for 31 yards on 14 carries (2.2 average) and caught six passes for 38 yards. But the Vikings leaned on him at a critical point in the game and their season.
After going down 16-12, the Vikings took possession at their 38-yard line. At that point, they had eight first downs and one third-down conversion in 41 minutes.
In a span of seven snaps, McKinnon had five touches for 31 yards and three first downs. He had a 7-yard run on second-and-5, a 12-yard catch on first-and-10 and then the ankle-breaking jump cut on third-and-3 at the Jacksonville 8.
On the last play of the third quarter, Mc-Kinnon took a short pass to the left, jabbed his right foot into the turf, cut left and gained 5 yards at a time when every red-zone inch is a struggle for the Vikings.
“I saw 50 [Smith] go left, so I went right, and I knew I had him,” McKinnon said. “I really didn’t watch him after he went down. Coaches always talk about winning the one-on-one matchups. That’s what I did.”
Three snaps later, Matt Asiata scored on a 1-yard run. A false start on the PAT led to a miss from 38 yards and a shaky 18-16 lead with 14:13 left.
“It was one heck of a response by the offense, especially Jerick down there,” Greenway said. “Things are going to happen that aren’t perfect. The important thing is guys were able to regain their focus after we went down [16-12].”
The Jaguars ran 18 snaps after they took that lead. They netted 32 yards, going three-and-out on their next two possessions and having a 61-yard field goal blocked on their last drive.
McKinnon ran the ball five more times after that go-ahead drive. He gained only 15 yards, but he did make another head-turning play with perhaps the best blitz pickup of his three-year career.
With perfect balance and technique, the 5-9, 205-pounder stonewalled 6-2, 232-pound blitzing linebacker Paul Posluszny. Bradford went from taking a nasty hit for a sack and third-and-long to slipping free for 15 yards, his longest run of the season.
Asked if he got a good look at McKinnon’s blitz pickup, Bradford said: “No. I’ll probably see it tomorrow. For him to be able to step up and take that guy on and allow me to escape was huge.”
After he sees the play on Monday, Bradford probably will want to buy McKinnon dinner. Of course, he might have to get in line behind Rhodes.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings writer. Twitter: @MarkCraigNFL E-mail: email@example.com