In their first 3 ½ seasons at U.S. Bank Stadium, their nine-figure palace on the east edge of downtown Minneapolis, the Vikings have built a considerable home-field advantage best enjoyed with a lead.
The building’s various accoutrements designed to whip fans into a frenzy — its seats that put them closer to the field than any in the NFL, its ear-splitting sound system and cinematic video production — have turned U.S. Bank Stadium into the Metrodome’s worthy successor; only seven of the Vikings’ 28 opponents before Sunday had quieted the din and emerged with a victory.
Those elements aren’t worth much, though, when the Vikings are trailing, and their success at home has been largely built on their ability to dash out to leads. They’d never won at U.S. Bank Stadium when trailing by more than seven points, and when Brandon McManus kicked a 29-yard field goal with 1:06 left in the first half, the Broncos became only the third team to take a 20-point lead on the Vikings at the Bank.
The first two occasions — startling losses to the Colts in 2016 and the Bills in 2018 — ultimately did great harm to the Vikings’ playoff chances. Their frenzied comeback Sunday, in a 27-23 victory over the Broncos, turned halftime boos to fourth-quarter jubilation in a manner that helped the Vikings prove their playoff mettle.
The Vikings’ rally — their largest since 1992 and tied for the fourth largest in franchise history — played out like the antithesis of their first three home victories this season, when they built early three-touchdown leads and could put their offensive starters in baseball caps as their pass rushers pursued opposing quarterbacks in the fourth quarter.
Largely forced to ditch their vaunted running game, the Vikings worked out of their hurry-up offense for most of the second half, scoring 27 points after halftime as Kirk Cousins threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns in the final two quarters.
Their defense, which had been vexed by the Broncos’ bold game plan early, gave up only three points after halftime as Denver’s play-calling turned conservative and the Vikings’ pass rush started rattling unproven quarterback Brandon Allen. And for the second week in a row, the Vikings came up with the stop they needed in the final seconds, as safety Jayron Kearse broke up Allen’s fourth-down pass for tight end Noah Fant from the Vikings 4-yard line as time expired.
“In the playoffs, blowouts aren’t really going to happen,” Cousins said. “It’s better to probably prepare yourself for the types of games that are going to happen week in and week out in this league.”
Cousins had been helped in home games this season by a forceful run game, but he couldn’t rely on it Sunday as Denver’s proud defense controlled Dalvin Cook. The Vikings came out of halftime working mostly in their two-minute offense, where Cousins found space for downfield shots off bootlegs, throwing scoring passes of 54 yards to Stefon Diggs and 32 yards to Kyle Rudolph. They resorted to multiple code words and hand signals for the same play, employing motions and shifts to make their two-minute offense playbook appear deeper than it was.
“We started drawing stuff up on a whiteboard for the first time this year,” Cousins said. “One of them was a big [pass] play to Dalvin. That’s why I’m saying — our coaches did a good job of adjusting and saying, ‘All right, they’re taking this away, but how can we still run this and present it differently to the defense?’ ”
The comeback was the second largest of Cousins’ career, behind Washington’s 2015 victory over the Buccaneers where he famously yelled, “You like that?” as he walked past reporters after the game at FedEx Field. Cousins had no one-liner after Sunday’s game, but his resolve made the difference.
“He played great,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s played great for a long time now. He made some great throws. Diggs made some great catches. [Tight end Tyler] Conklin had a couple nice catches. One was, I believe, on third-and-long [in the third quarter]. They are a good defensive football team. We said all week long this was going to be a struggle, and it showed up.”
As the offense searched for answers, Zimmer looked for ways to contain Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton, who caught five passes for 113 yards. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes began the game shadowing Sutton (the first time in weeks he has been asked to follow one receiver across the field), and the Vikings started using double teams on Sutton late in the game, rather than devoting as many players to rushing Allen.
Other than a 29-yard completion to Tim Patrick on a back-shoulder throw and a 43-yard throw to Sutton off a double move on Rhodes, Allen couldn’t find much room to work against the Vikings in the second half. After building their early lead with bold moves such as Sutton’s 31-yard throw to Patrick in the first half, the Broncos played not to lose in the second half, with Allen handing off to Devontae Booker on a third-and-7 before McManus missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt.
Cousins responded with a touchdown throw to Rudolph, and the Broncos’ attempt to regain the lead they’d blown proved futile.
The Vikings will send players home after meetings Monday for a Week 12 bye, resting up before a Monday night game at Seattle. They are a half-game behind the Packers (who play next Sunday night in San Francisco) and in strong shape for a playoff spot.
It’s possible they will play this January in the building where their most iconic moment to date came after they blew a 17-0 lead in the NFC divisional playoffs. Instead of heading into the bye with a loss to a 10-point underdog, the Vikings turned their odious first half into a chance to show their grit.
“I hope we don’t get in that situation again, but I do believe that they won’t give up,” Zimmer said. “I think they’ll keep fighting and try to play it out, and hopefully we’ll figure out a way to win.”