In what can now be regarded, almost unequivocally, as the low point of the Vikings' 2019 season, a 16-6 loss to the Bears on Sept. 28 exposed some raw nerves in their passing game. Stefon Diggs skipped two days of meetings and practices following the loss, earning himself more than $200,000 in fines, while Adam Thielen talked in the locker room after the game about the team's frustration over an offense that was still misfiring.
After that game, quarterback Kirk Cousins invited Thielen on his radio show to apologize to him for missing him on a downfield throw where the wide receiver was in single coverage and could have been on his way to a touchdown. Coach Mike Zimmer was nonplused by the exchange, but Cousins connected with Thielen for four touchdowns in the next three games.
All appeared to be well, until Thielen injured his right hamstring on the fourth of those touchdown receptions in Detroit on Oct. 20. For the better part of two months, he tried to work his way back from the injury, having to shut it down after seven snaps against Kansas City on Nov. 3 and again after tweaking the hamstring in a chilly outdoor practice following the Vikings' bye week. While Diggs emerged as the Vikings' pre-eminent deep threat — taking a role that had typically belonged to his counterpart — Thielen seemed not himself, catching only three passes for 27 yards in two games after his return.
On Sunday, as Cousins hit Thielen for a 43-yard connection on a play that closely resembled the one he missed in Chicago, everything came full circle. The Vikings' wild-card win over the Saints included Thielen's return as a downfield threat, making a catch that set up the game-winning score to Kyle Rudolph.
Cousins' final two throws of his first NFL playoff win were his most momentous of the day, and perhaps also his most difficult: According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he had only a 31.9% chance of completing the throw to Thielen with Patrick Robinson trailing tightly in coverage, and he had just a 24.9% chance of hitting Rudolph for the game-winner over P.J. Williams. But as Cousins hit those two receivers to end the game, it was also clear he'd reaped the benefits of having his full complement of receivers healthy for the first time since Week 6.
"He was frustrated at points earlier in the season, but we all were," Thielen said. "We all had a piece in that. It just goes back to his preparation; he's not going to change his preparation because of the bad or the good. That's what you want in a leader, and that's what makes him great."
Thielen's return to form as a downfield option came as the Saints used Janoris Jenkins to help take Diggs out of the game. Thielen found himself matched up against Marshon Lattimore for much of the day, and Cousins hit an early shot to Thielen as Lattimore appeared to let him go in coverage.
The receiver's day started poorly, with a fumble on his first catch and a holding penalty that wiped out a 12-yard gain from Dalvin Cook. But he picked up first downs with three third-down catches after that, and put the Vikings in position to win by beating Robinson at the end of the game.
For the Vikings to win again on the road in San Francisco on Saturday, they'll need all their options against the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. The 49ers likely will try to force Cousins to work underneath while their formidable pass rush goes to work against the Vikings' line, but another win as road underdogs could be easier to come by if the Vikings can find a few big gains. Thielen's return on Sunday showed evidence they have another option to make that happen.
"That's a route I've run since my rookie year," Cousins said of the overtime throw to Thielen. "Sometimes you connect on it, and sometimes you don't. It was great to connect on that one."