EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The decision Kirk Cousins made this offseason, rehashed with surprising voracity this week before the Vikings defeated the New York Jets 37-17 on Sunday, boiled down to a choice between two teams at different points in their developmental life cycles.
The Vikings, coming off a 13-3 season and a trip to the NFC Championship Game, ultimately proved a good enough fit for Cousins to leave an extra $6 million on the table from the Jets, who won only five games a year ago. The Jets instead traded up three spots in the draft to select USC quarterback Sam Darnold, starting the season 3-3 as the 21-year-old mixed impressive performances with rocky ones.
In a league that revels in its unpredictability, one of the few bedrocks is how the balance of power tends to shift from teams with young QBs to those with proven passers. And on a day when Cousins was far from his best, the Vikings eventually pulled away from the Jets in part because of the quarterbacking advantage they enjoyed.
Cousins’ day was not without its warts — an ill-advised backward pass that was ruled a fumble and a tipped pass that could have been intercepted among them — but it ended without a turnover as he completed 25 of his 40 passes for 241 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Playing without two receivers and beset by dropped passes, Darnold eventually made the kinds of unforced errors that tipped the game and enabled the Vikings to cruise to victory at windswept MetLife Stadium.
The rookie threw three second-half interceptions, including one that safety Harrison Smith returned 52 yards, and lost one of his two fumbled snaps. He was still under 100 passing yards as the fourth quarter started, and finished the day 17-for-42 for 206 yards.
“When you have special teams giving you good field position and you have a defense giving you the ball back, it probably makes it look better than it really was,” Cousins said. “That’s team football, and we’re so grateful for our defense and special teams with the way they played [Sunday]. It gave us opportunities to go back out there and score points.”
After punting six times in the first half and scoring only three points off three drives that started in Jets territory, the Vikings scored on five of their final seven drives before an end-of-game kneel-down by Cousins, getting 13 of their 27 second-half points off turnovers.
Their defense stopped the Jets on their first seven third downs of the day, holding New York to two conversions on 13 attempts after getting off the field following all 10 of the Cardinals’ third downs last week.
“It’s big momentum,” Smith said. “It’s not a turnover, but when you can stifle them — especially the third-and-shorts, when you have a physical [opponent] and stuff like that — it’s big and it normally allows us to flip the field and give our offense a good opportunity.”
For the day, the Vikings started five drives in Jets territory. “Normally, that equals points,” Smith said.
The fact the Vikings posted only three field goals on those drives will likely be a point of emphasis this week, after a game Cousins said was “all over the map” offensively.
His day started with a 34-yard touchdown strike to Adam Thielen (who finished with nine catches for 110 yards, matching Charlie Hennigan’s 57-year-old record with seven consecutive 100-yard games to start the season).
But a false-start penalty on Stefon Diggs, as well as a pair of off-target throws from Cousins, turned a promising drive into a 26-yard Dan Bailey field goal in the second quarter, and 16-miles-per-hour winds pulled the kicker’s 42-yard field goal at the end of the first half to the left as the Vikings clung to a 10-7 lead.
Their second-half touchdowns came on three drives of more than 50 yards apiece, as their running game pried open holes in the Jets’ defense. The Vikings stretched their lead to 27-10 early in the fourth quarter, when Roc Thomas gained 23 yards on an outside run and Latavius Murray burst 38 yards for a touchdown off an inside zone run on the next play.
“The key is to get the defense running sideways,” said Murray, who finished with 69 yards and two touchdowns. “Once you get ’em running, you put your foot in the ground [and cut back], if it opens up. But like Coach [Zimmer] talked about, they brought pressure on that one. When you’re able to block up pressure, there’s nobody in the secondary.”
Having won their past two games against rookie passers, the Vikings will see their quarterbacking advantage neutralized next week when Drew Brees and the 5-1 Saints come to town for a Sunday night game that will trigger any number of retrospectives about January’s “Minneapolis Miracle” in the Vikings’ 29-24 NFC divisional playoffs victory.
They will also spend the week assessing the health of a defense that was already missing linemen Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph on Sunday, and lost linebacker Anthony Barr and cornerback Xavier Rhodes to hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively, in the fourth quarter.
Their win streak is at three, though, and first place in the NFC North is theirs alone, by a half-game over the Packers (who had a bye) and a game over the Bears and Lions.
On Sunday, at least, having an opportunistic defense and a sturdy quarterback was enough.
“It’s frustrating when you’re not taking advantage of situations, but that’s football,” Thielen said. “When you have the guys that we have in this locker room, a good quarterback, and the offensive staff we have, you know at some point things are going to pop.”