PHILADELPHIA – The Vikings’ position in the offseason, unique as it was, forced them to hire a new offensive coordinator and make a decision on their starting quarterback after a 13-3 season.
They had played well enough to reach the NFC Championship Game — and help offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur get the Giants coaching job in the process — but weren’t confident enough in Case Keenum’s long-term reliability to make him their long-term QB after he’d taken them to the brink of the Super Bowl.
And so — long before Sunday’s 23-21 victory over the Eagles, and shortly after their season-ending 38-7 loss in the NFC title game to the same team — the Vikings went with their boldest solutions: They flew to Philadelphia on the day of the Eagles’ Super Bowl parade, hiring quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to be their next coordinator, and bid farewell to Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, setting their sights on Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, even though landing him would require a fully guaranteed $84 million contract.
It might have been silly to call Sunday’s rematch with the Eagles any kind of a litmus test for the Vikings, but accentuating the importance of ending a three-game winless streak was not. And in a nationally televised game that presented the Vikings with a chance to reassert themselves before a stretch of three home games in four weeks, their biggest offseason additions delivered.
Rather than trying to pound the ball into the Eagles’ top-ranked run defense, DeFilippo dialed up a handful of creative perimeter runs to give the Vikings some productivity on the ground, while trusting Cousins to do the rest.
The quarterback did, completing 30 of his 37 passes for 301 yards under intense pressure and posting a passer rating of 109.6, going over 100 for the fifth time in as many career games at Lincoln Financial Field, as the Vikings built a 20-3 lead and survived a late Eagles comeback.
Cousins — asked by nose tackle Linval Joseph to break down the team’s pregame huddle — delivered an impassioned address that was captured by TV cameras and built on the theme DeFilippo had preached to the offense all week about finishing. Presented with a game ball after the victory, DeFilippo called the team the “best group of working guys I’ve ever been around.”
The victory moved the Vikings to 2-2-1, tying them for second in the NFC North with the Packers. It also sent the team home with a fresh breath of confidence after a three-game stretch where pressure had started to mount.
“We talked all week — Coach ‘Flip’ emphasized finishing. He said, ‘We’ve got to finish tackles, we’ve got to finish blocks, we’ve got to finish the game,’ ” Cousins said. “I think the message was heard and received. We found a way to finish.”
The Vikings defense, which had given up 556 yards to the Rams 10 days earlier, forced its first two turnovers since Week 1 and got a 64-yard fumble return from Joseph for the first touchdown of the day.
The Vikings came into Sunday with the NFL’s 32nd-ranked run game. When asked about the importance of establishing balance during his Thursday news conference, DeFilippo outlined a philosophy that made it clear balance is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.
“I feel like I did my job as a play caller as an offensive coordinator if our best players were the ones, our playmakers, were the ones that touched the ball in space and gave them a chance to help our team win,” DeFilippo said Thursday. “We all know who those players are. We don’t need to name them. If those guys are targeted — catches, our time of possession is still good, we’re efficient in the red zone, we’re efficient on third down then — at least we gave our team a chance for success.”
Down 20-6 at the end of the third quarter, the Eagles forced their first three-and-out of the day, and Carson Wentz orchestrated a 10-play, 66-yard drive that ended with him hitting Wendell Smallwood for a 12-yard touchdown on a wheel route. Rather than opting for an extra point that would have pulled Philadelphia within seven, coach Doug Pederson decided to go for two, and Smallwood slipped around a tackle attempt from Andrew Sendejo after taking a pitch from Wentz for the conversion.
On the next drive, the Vikings’ only turnover of the day nearly invited disaster.
Cousins’ swing pass for Roc Thomas with 10:03 left went backward, and when Thomas couldn’t corral it, the Eagles’ Nigel Bradham fell on it, giving Philadelphia the ball on the Vikings 30-yard line with a chance to take the lead.
“In a perfect world, it would be a forward pass, but it is what it is,” Cousins said. “When you’re throwing laterally, a half a yard is the difference between forward and backward.”
A Harrison Smith hit on third-and-20, though, broke up Wentz’s pass to Alshon Jeffery, forcing the Eagles to punt. And on the Vikings’ next drive, DeFilippo dialed up one of the team’s most successful run calls of the season, when Latavius Murray gained 11 yards on a first-down draw play.
DeFilippo’s call to leak tight end Kyle Rudolph into the flat on third-and-1 led to a 17-yard gain that put the Vikings in Eagles territory. And on a third-and-7 from the Philadelphia 36, Cousins hit Stefon Diggs for 2 yards, nudging the Vikings close enough for a Dan Bailey 52-yard field goal. The veteran kicker, who had missed earlier attempts from 28 and 45 yards, drilled this one, restoring a two-possession lead.
Though the Vikings’ most recent home game — a 27-6 loss as 16½-point favorites against the Bills — served as a reminder that nothing should be assumed in the NFL. They will play the next two weeks against the Cardinals and Jets, two teams with rookie QBs and a combined record of 3-7.
If the Vikings can put together a win streak, Sunday’s game in Philadelphia could prove to be a turning point in the season. And the changes they made to the top of their offense last winter helped make it happen.
“I think he knows how important this game was,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said of Cousins. “He’s a guy that wants to win so badly, and he’s got so much leadership to bring to the table.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org