EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Victories in the NFL, even over opponents as disjointed as the one the Vikings faced Sunday, have such a soothing effect. It's as if they can place teams in a state of suspended animation where strife temporarily melts away.
After their Week 4 loss to the Bears, the Vikings levied more than $200,000 of fines for Stefon Diggs' absence from Monday's meetings and Wednesday's practice, while Adam Thielen and Kirk Cousins spent the better part of the week stanching national media narratives that formed over Thielen's relatively straightforward comments about the Vikings needing a better downfield passing game.
On Sunday, after a 28-10 victory over the Giants — in which Cousins threw for 306 yards and hit Thielen for a pair of touchdowns — the quarterback and the receiver gave plaudits to the team's focus. A contrite Diggs accepted the fines he had received, saying again that a cold, not discontentment, was the reason for his absence and adding with a wink and a smile, "Yeah, I want to be in Minnesota." And Mike Zimmer said the fines were sufficient punishment for his receiver, whom the Vikings coach said he never seriously considered benching Sunday.
What about his comments on Friday, when he was publicly noncommittal about playing Diggs? "I say a lot of things on Friday," Zimmer said.
Consume the idea that all is well in Vikingsland, if you will, with a generous pinch of salt. But if the Vikings had failed to leave MetLife Stadium with a win on Sunday, before a home game against the 3-2 Eagles, the temperature would have increased considerably on the unrest that bubbled up after the loss at Soldier Field. By dispatching the Giants, in their most complete offensive effort of the year, the Vikings were at least able to reduce it to a simmer.
"It starts with Wednesday's practice; you have to go give everything you've got on every single play in practice, and it starts to trickle through the locker room," Thielen said. "When you have your veterans, your starters, giving everything they have, and the other guys start saying, 'Oh, wow — this is how they're going to practice? This is how we've got to go about our business this week?' And that's what we had. I mean, I talked to you guys on Thursday and was like, 'We're not frustrated — you should see this practice.' Guys were flying around and having fun. When it really comes down, at the end of the day, this is a kid's game, and you've got to have fun doing it. When you see guys flying around, making plays [in practice], it's exciting, and it gives you a chance to win on Sundays."
Cousins hadn't thrown for more than 250 yards all season; he eclipsed that total in the first half of the game, on the way to his first day with 300 yards or more since last November's win over the Packers. The Vikings capped a 98-yard drive when Cousins found Thielen on a fade route for his first red zone touchdown pass of the year, before the wide receiver shimmied and struck a pose in a choreographed celebration with Diggs, Dalvin Cook and Bisi Johnson. Cousins hit the receiver on crossing routes off rollouts that gave Thielen room to run after the catch, and later found Thielen for a leaping touchdown in the back of the end zone.
"That was a throw that probably won't be talked about enough," Thielen said. "You put that ball anyplace else and it's probably not a completion. Throws like that, that you look at and say, 'Dang, this guy can really play and he gives us a chance to win on Sunday.'"
Cook had 132 yards on 21 carries, and caught another six passes for 86 yards, making the most of his nimble footwork against a Giants defense that frequently found itself out of position trying to bring down the running back. The Vikings' moving pockets also facilitated throwing windows for Cousins, who was sacked three times but wasn't hit otherwise.
"I think their pass rush is pretty good; they showed that at times today," Cousins said. "The ability to get out of the pocket helped us, and they usually were explosive plays — those crossers to Stefon and Adam."
The Vikings' victory came against a Giants team that was already missing Saquon Barkley, lost backup running back Wayne Gallman to a concussion and briefly lost receiver Sterling Shepard during a concussion examination. They were able to breathe easily at the end of the game after the Giants got just three points out of three second-half drives that crossed the Vikings' 30, and they missed their own opportunities to salt the game away sooner. Jabrill Peppers punched the ball from Cook's hand at the Giants' 1. Anthony Barr broke through the line of scrimmage to stop Jon Hillman for a safety, but the Vikings had to settle for two points, not seven.
And Diggs still played a complementary role in the offense, catching three passes for 44 yards after his two missed days. He claimed after the game his relationship with the Vikings was "never not good," though questions about his satisfaction with the offense figure to persist and could resurface if the offense sputters again.
"You want everybody there, but you also understand that this is a business, and people have decisions they have to make," Cousins said. "This is not my first rodeo. I think some of these questions are being asked like I'm a rookie and I've never experienced this before. This is Year 8 for me, and I've played with some big-time, big-name receivers who've done some great things in this league before, and aren't named Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. My relationship with those guys has been outstanding, from Day 1 until now. I'm not surprised by what this league can throw at you; you have to keep your head down, keep working and go play."
Imperfect though the win might have been, it was decisive enough to deliver the hoped-for fruits: a day off for players on Monday, and a sense, at least for now, of harmony.
"When we are losing, that's frustrating, and that brings a lot out of a person," Cook said. "Me, I was frustrated after the [Bears] game, too. Everybody shows their frustration in a different way and at a different level. When we are winning, everything is just going to go how we want it to go. That's just how this game played out."