At a first glance of the statistics, it doesn’t make sense how the Vikings fell 30-20 to the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday night, but the combination of missing so many injured starters and two key turnovers swung the momentum of the game.
When the news came down that cornerback Xavier Rhodes was going to be absent alongside linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Andrew Sendejo, tackle Riley Reiff and guard Tom Compton, you knew it might be a tough night for the Purple.
But the Saints were able to win without really needing future Hall of Famer Drew Brees at his best. He completed 18 of 23 passes for a mere 120 yards with one touchdown pass to Alvin Kamara and an interception thrown to Vikings safety Harrison Smith.
It was the third-fewest passing yards in Brees illustrious career when he attempted at least 20 passes. Since the start of the 2014 season, he had averaged 307.7 passing yards a game, with a low of 184 during a 47-10 rout at Buffalo last year.
The Vikings easily won the battle of offensive yards 423-270 and had 27 first downs to New Orleans’ 17. Time of possession? That also went the Vikings way at 31 minutes, 23 seconds to 28:37 for the Saints.
The Vikings had better red-zone efficiency and third-down efficiency, and each time the Vikings got the ball with goal-to-go, they scored a touchdown.
But the biggest play of the game came when Adam Thielen caught a screen pass with 1:11 to go in the second quarter.
At that point the Vikings were at the New Orleans 18-yard line, up 13-10 and slated to get the kickoff at the start of the second half.
But a good helmet tackle by P.J. Williams led to a fumble that was recovered by Marshon Lattimore and returned 54 yards to the Vikings 33. A thoughtless unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on Laquon Treadwell added 15 yards and made it much easier for the Saints to score a touchdown and take the lead.
“[The fumble] was disappointing because we had a chance to score there,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Who knows, go seven or 10 points up?
“I don’t think Adam is going to fumble the ball very often. Sometimes when guys are in zone or man-to-man, you have different route combinations you’re supposed to do, so Adam made a mistake. He dropped the ball. I thought other than that, Thielen played pretty damn good.”
The Vikings didn’t look like an inferior team compared to the Saints, but their mistakes really turned the game.
The other big turnover in the game came in the second half, when quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receiver Stefon Diggs miscommunicated on a route that led to Williams’ 45-yard interception return for a touchdown with 5:58 left in the half. That made it 27-13 New Orleans, and the game was put out of reach on the next Saints possession.
The Saints had a total of 99 return yards off the two Vikings turnovers. They scored 14 points off those turnovers, using only 48 seconds of game clock.
Those plays wiped out the boxscore and made the statistical battle between the two teams irrelevant.
“We made some mistakes, yes. Turned the ball over, yes. This is still a good football team,” Zimmer said at the news conference. “Even in here it seems like a morgue, but this is a good football team. These guys fought their rear ends off tonight, and I am proud of them.”
Cousins had success
There was good reason to think that Cousins may be able to go toe-to-toe with Brees on Sunday night as the two former Big Ten quarterbacks had faced off twice before, splitting the record with a win apiece but with Cousins putting up some of the best stats of his career against any single opponent.
In their first meeting, in November 2015, Cousins completed 20 of 25 passes for 324 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The Redskins won that game 47-14.
Last year in November, the Saints escaped with a 34-31 victory, but Cousins was fantastic, completing 22 of 32 passes for 322 yards and three scores with no interceptions.
Including Sunday’s game, Cousins is 73-for-98 for 1,005 yards, eight touchdowns and the one interception in three games against the Saints.
And while Cousins had success Sunday, finishing 31-for-41 for 359 yards, two touchdowns and the interception, Brees moved the only needle that mattered, as he is now 2-1 in his career against teams with Cousins at QB.
Bateman a believer
Rashod Bateman was one of Gophers coach P.J. Fleck’s big recruiting victories when the 6-1, 185 pound receiver signed out of Tifton, Ga., in the Class of 2018.
Bateman had offers from schools such as Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.
But Bateman picked the Gophers, and Friday night in their dramatic victory over Indiana, he showed why he was so highly sought after.
Bateman grabbed four receptions for 108 yards, including the game-winning 67-yard touchdown with 1:34 left on the clock.
That freshman-to-freshman connection from quarterback Tanner Morgan might have saved the Gophers’ chances at a bowl game as they get ready to travel to Illinois on Saturday.
The Gophers are 10-point favorites on the road against the Illini, who are 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten.
“Rashod Bateman had plenty of opportunities to play in the SEC and top-five programs, top-10 programs in the country,” Fleck said. “He wanted to come make the University of Minnesota something that it hasn’t been in a long time, a champion. That is what he came here. He wanted to be part of a solution.”
Fleck said that he understands that his idea of a holistic approach to recruiting — using phrases like succeeding in four aspects of college life, athletically, academically, socially and spiritually — are not right for every athlete. But he said it was just right for Bateman.
“Rashod Bateman has ‘Row The Boat’ tattooed on his arm. It is a lifestyle,” Fleck said. “I am really proud of the progress he is making. I know there is a lot of other freshman out there getting a lot of credit, the known names, Rashod Bateman should be right in those names of freshman in terms of the best in the country. I think he is proving that not only on the field but off the field in terms of being a humanitarian.”
Yes after Friday night’s performance, Bateman now rates No. 9 in the country in receiving yards for a freshman with 403.