NEW ORLEANS – Dalvin Cook had five carries on the Vikings’ opening eight plays during Sunday’s 26-20 overtime victory against the Saints, leaving little doubt whether coordinator Kevin Stefanski could still lean on Cook despite chest and shoulder injuries.
Cook finished with 130 yards (94 rushing) and two touchdowns on 31 touches, one shy of his career-high workload in his first NFL playoff game.
“I knew I was going to get it, but I’d been out for three weeks,” said Cook, who was sidelined against the Packers and Bears. “I’m fresh. I’m ready to go. I’ve been rehabbing a lot. I’ve been spending a majority of my time in [the training room], so coaches knew I was ready. Just like the start of a new season for me.”
Improved offensive line play helped, according to coach Mike Zimmer, but Cook’s elusiveness turned the smallest openings into big gains.
“They got some really great players on the defensive line,” Zimmer said. “But the way [Cook] runs the football, with the acceleration to get through the seams and cracks, and the physicality he runs with — he made some great runs.”
Balance was restored. The Vikings’ game plan aimed to spread out the Saints with pre-snap motions and three-receiver formations, from which Cook found room for a 5-yard second-quarter touchdown and a 19-yard catch and run. Receiver Adam Thielen lined up at fullback on a 22-yard run by Cook.
“When we’re a healthy team and they’re rolling,” linebacker Anthony Barr said, “we don’t feel too much pressure. So we can go out there and if we make a mistake, they have our back. It hasn’t been like that in years past.”
A ‘silly’ topic?
Before Zimmer’s second playoff victory as Vikings coach on Sunday, co-owner Mark Wilf issued a statement saying he “values the leadership” of Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman amid rumors about Zimmer’s job status. Zimmer pointed to his regular-season winning percentage (.599), which ranks seventh among active head coaches with at least three seasons.
Talk of his firing, Zimmer said, is “silly.”
“I really don’t want to discuss it, honestly,” Zimmer said. “I love this team. I love this organization. I love the players. I get a lot of people helping me. Quite honestly, I think it’s silly people are talking about it on a 10-win team and 60 percent wins [as head coach].”
Diggs airs emotions
After a third-quarter three-and-out series by the Vikings offense, receiver Stefon Diggs threw his helmet on the sideline in frustration. Diggs was shadowed Sunday by Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins and finished with two catches for 19 yards, including a key third-down conversion near the goal line.
Diggs said his frustration came from the Saints’ attention that sometimes peaked with double-teams, contributing to his otherwise quiet afternoon.
“People don’t want you to show your emotion,” Diggs said, “but if you don’t show your emotion, they think you don’t care. It wasn’t anything toward my guys. It was just the coverage that I was getting.”
Turning the page
The Vikings opened as seven-point underdogs in San Francisco, the NFC’s No. 1 seed, for Saturday’s divisional-round game at Levi’s Stadium. Zimmer won’t have a problem maintaining an us-against-the-world approach after the Vikings won in New Orleans despite being 7½-point underdogs.
During his postgame victory speech, Zimmer said he might be “a little grouchy” this week — wasting no time reminding the locker room of the 2017 NFC Championship Game loss in Philadelphia after the emotionally draining “Minneapolis Miracle” win over the Saints.
“I actually reminded them,” Zimmer said. “The last time we won a game against this team in the playoffs, we didn’t play very well next week.”