Photo credit: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
Welcome to our morning-after Vikings blog, where we’ll revisit every game by looking at two players who stood out, two concerns for the team, two trends to watch and one big question. Here we go:
When the Vikings got the ball back with 1:51 to go on Sunday against the Panthers, Kirk Cousins’ chances for a late-game comeback hinged on his ability to handle an even tougher task than he’d faced the previous week. The quarterback, who’d completed one of his final four passes while the Vikings needed a field goal to tie the game a week ago, this time had to direct a 75-yard drive for a touchdown without the benefit of a timeout.
The drive Cousins conducted was the quarterback at his most surgical: he completed six of his seven throws for all 75 yards the Vikings needed, hitting Chad Beebe for a 10-yard touchdown that ultimately was the game-winner. The Vikings scored so quickly, needing only 1:05 to get to the end zone, that the Panthers had one more shot to get in position for a field goal, which Joey Slye missed wide left.
“I think part of it was, the protection was really clean,” Cousins said after the 28-27 victory. “A couple of those plays I probably took longer than I should have, but I just didn’t feel the rush collapsing on me. I think the first play of the drive to Justin [Jefferson], I maybe two- or three-hitched that, just taking a while, but I had time. I threw one to Beebe later where I kind of took some time, and even the throw to Kyle [Rudolph] over the middle that got us down into the low red zone was one where normally you just don’t have that kind of time, so it was great protection, and guys got to their spots. It’s a little easier to be efficient like that where you know where everyone is going to be and they’re showing up on time.“
The Panthers not bringing pressure after Cousins allowed the Vikings to shape another aspect of their drive: how much time they were still able to spend in a huddle. Just two of their seven plays on the drive came in no-huddle situations, as Cousins’ first two completions allowed Jefferson and Beebe to step out of bounds and an illegal contact penalty on the Panthers’ Jermaine Carter stopped the clock at 0:53 after a 25-yard completion to Kyle Rudolph. The Vikings, according to Sharp Football Stats, entered Week 12 tied for the eighth-fewest no-huddle plays in the league; they were able to stage their final drive in a relatively calm environment by managing the clock well and using little of the game clock between plays.
It helped them win on a day when coaching decisions and clock management might have ultimately swung the balance of the game.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule overrode a Carolina PR person who’d planned to end his postgame news conference at the usual time, with Rhule saying he felt he needed to take a few extra minutes and answer all of reporters’ questions after a one-point game that had swung so drastically. And Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was especially pointed in his synopsis of what happened at the end of a game the Panthers had a chance to close out.
When Mike Davis lowered his helmet into D.J. Wonnum’s collarbone and gave the Panthers a new set of downs in Vikings territory with a five-yard run, Carolina had a three-point lead with the clock inside four minutes. The Vikings had already spent two of their three timeouts in the half, using one on an alignment issue at the line of scrimmage a play after Cousins was called for an illegal forward pass and spending another to chase a third successful challenge of the day, as coach Mike Zimmer argued D.J. Moore hadn’t come down with a pass on third-and-5.
It presented an opportunity for the Panthers — who’d run the ball for 60 yards in the fourth quarter — to return to their ground game and drain the clock of time the Vikings would need for a comeback. Instead, Carolina ran on first down (when Eric Wilson stood former Gophers running back Rodney Smith up in the backfield and Cameron Dantzler finished the play for a four-yard loss) and called two pass plays. Smith dropped one, and Teddy Bridgewater threw low for Ian Thomas on third down. Those plays ran just 54 seconds off the clock.
The Panthers punted the ball back to the Vikings with 2:18 left, and even after Chad Beebe muffed it, Carolina still had to manage the game around the two-minute warning and the final Minnesota timeout.
The Panthers’ ensuing runs consumed just 14 seconds, and after the Vikings’ final timeout, Rhule said, the Panthers were unhappy with how quickly officials spotted the ball and started the play clock. Carolina broke its offensive huddle with just seven seconds left on the play clock, giving Bridgewater little time to assess things at the line of scrimmage. His throw for a wide-open Moore was off the mark and left the receiver with an ankle injury.
”It’s one of those deals where I feel like we might’ve panicked a little bit trying to figure out what play call to call in that situation because it’s like, man, do you run the ball and get stopped, make the clock run down to about a minute and 10 [seconds]? [Or] throw the ball and try to score?” Bridgewater said. “Honestly, we called a great play, we just didn’t have enough time to execute. It was a play where we wanted to shift Robby [Anderson], get a good man-zone read, see what defense they were in. Because we were against the clock, we had to rush into it. Think if we would’ve got the play call in or we would’ve been able to make a decision sooner on what call to make, I think we see the look, check into a run play and hopefully we score or make the clock go down. Just one of those deals where D.J. popped open. Wasn’t the right look, but still just got to hit the throw.”
Rhule decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Vikings’ 3, saying after the game that analytics suggested going for it was the right call from the 2 but not from a yard further out, given the decreased chances of being successful. He made a call opposite the go-for-it decision Zimmer made in the Vikings’ one-point loss in Seattle. This time, Cousins got to play the part of comeback conductor in a drive that came together masterfully.
”We do the two-minute drill every week, we do different plays, we walk through different stuff,” Jefferson said. “Just calling the right plays with the right looks, getting the ball downfield, getting out of bounds, stopping the clock. Just ending the drive with a touchdown.”
Here is one other trend to watch from the Vikings’ win over the Panthers:
Cousins’ deep passing attempts: Through the first seven weeks of the season, no NFL quarterback had thrown deep more frequently than Cousins, who’d thrown 20.6 percent of his passes at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. When I asked Cousins about it after the bye week, he said, “We’ve had a lot of big plays. The problem has been when we’re not having those explosive plays, we aren’t getting the singles. We’re hitting home runs, we’re hitting triples, but we’re not hitting as many singles. In my background, I’ve been a guy that’s hit a lot of singles, if you will.”
If we’re to continue to the analogy, Cousins has spent less time swinging for the fences and more time trying to take the ball the other way for a single since the bye week. Just 11 percent of his passes (16 of 155) have traveled at least 20 yards through the air in those five games. He’s thrown just one interception and posted passer ratings above 100 in all of them. On Sunday, he attempted a season-high 45 passes; only three were deep shots. He beat the Panthers’ blitzes largely on short throws, going 11 of 19 for 104 yards and a touchdown when Carolina brought extra pressure. In recent weeks, Cousins has been succeeding with shorter throws, especially in games where the Vikings haven’t been able to lean as heavily on play action. No doubt Ron Gardenhire would be proud.
Two players who stood out
Eric Kendricks: You probably expect to see his name here by this point, right? Kendricks did it again on Sunday, intercepting Bridgewater to register his third pick in as many home games. What’s more, all three have come deep in Vikings territory and have helped save points. His pick of Bridgewater on Sunday was probably the easiest of the three, but he paired it with five run stops, taking advantage of several free runs through the line of scrimmage on a day where the Vikings quite frequently put Kendricks and Eric Wilson in their double-A gap blitz package (a look Bridgewater would have seen plenty in practices during his time in Minnesota). Kendricks and Wilson are also the first line backing tandem since 2016 to register three interceptions apiece during the same season.
Bisi Johnson: He’s slipped down the Vikings’ wide receiver depth chart this season, but with Adam Thielen still on the COVID-19 reserve list on Sunday, Johnson re-emerged as a reliable target, catching all seven of the passes Cousins threw his way for a total of 70 yards. He’s certainly not as dynamic as Jefferson or Thielen, but the Vikings needed a complement to Jefferson, and Johnson was one of several players who filled the role. The Vikings were just the second team in NFL history to have four receivers (Jefferson, Johnson, Beebe and Rudolph) post 70 yards in the same game.
“That’s the thing that I like about this group,” Jefferson said. “None of us are selfish, none of us are all about ourselves. Whatever happens, we just go with the flow. Whenever our name is called, we just be prepared and make the play. His name was called this past week and he showed up. That’s exactly what he was supposed to do.”
Two areas of concern
Special teams: The Vikings’ blocked field goal made the difference in a game they won by a point, but their difficulty finding a return man almost cost them a victory. Beebe’s muffed punt with just over two minutes to go put the Panthers in position to close the game out from the Vikings’ 9. Replays on the Fox broadcast showed Beebe — who was returning punts for just the second time this year with K.J. Osborn inactive — catching the punt with his eyes closed, and the ball bounced out of his arms before hitting Chris Orr’s helmet and landing in position for a Panthers recovery. Beebe redeemed himself with the game-winning TD minutes later, but the Vikings are likely still looking for solutions to their kick and punt return issues.
”Obviously, we still have to do a better job on special teams with the coverage units and return game,” Zimmer said Monday. “We’ve got to start flipping the field position a lot better than what we are.”
Procedural penalties: The Vikings had the following penalties on offense: Two false starts, two delays of game, an illegal snap and an illegal forward pass. The second delay of game came when the Vikings tried to draw the Panthers offside on a punt, but the first came two plays after a Beebe false start, forcing the Vikings to use their final offensive play of the first half on a Dalvin Cook run to get back in Dan Bailey’s field goal range.
One big question
How strong are the Vikings’ playoff chances at this point? The Vikings began the month of November with a 1-5 record coming off their bye week. Entering December, they’re 5-6, with three NFC North wins and a one-point victory on Sunday that helped them stave off oblivion after last week’s loss to the Cowboys. The division is all but gone, with the Packers sitting at 8-3, but Green Bay’s victory over the Bears on Sunday night put the Vikings in second place in the division and helped them jump ahead of the Bears in the wild-card race. The Vikings are just a game back of the Cardinals, and they got plenty of help on Sunday; Arizona, Tampa Bay, Chicago and the Rams all lost. A win over the Jaguars on Sunday would send the Vikings to Tampa Bay with a 6-6 record and a chance to catch the 7-5 Buccaneers with a victory on Dec. 13.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the Vikings’ playoff chances are currently at 30 percent (the highest mark they’ve reached in several weeks); they would surpass 60 percent if the Vikings can win against Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. The fact the Vikings have a 4-4 NFC record also helps; they’d be in a strong position for playoff tiebreakers if they’re able to get to 7-6 with two more wins. Stubbing their toe against a team like Jacksonville isn’t much of an option, but if the Vikings head into a crucial three-game Bucs-Bears-Saints stretch at 6-6, a playoff spot is a real possibility.