Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had a decision to make on fourth-and-2 with a 10-point lead and 4 minutes, 54 seconds left in Sunday night’s game vs. the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
He could send out the field-goal unit, which had already seen Dan Bailey miss two out of three attempts, to try and get the lead to 13. Or he could go for it and try to keep the great Aaron Rodgers off the field and get the lead to 17.
“I didn’t want to give him the ball back,” Zimmer said after the Vikings’ 24-17 victory. “I told our offense — when we went for it there on fourth down — I told our offense last night, we want to have the ball at the end of the game so he doesn’t have it.”
But Kirk Cousins’ pass to Stefon Diggs was tipped at the line and fell incomplete, giving Green Bay a little life.
Rodgers then led the Packers on a nine-play, 73-yard drive that stalled at the Vikings 20-yard line. Mason Crosby kicked a field goal to make it a one-possession game.
But the Vikings had time on their side, as there was only 2:20 to go and Green Bay had one timeout left. The Packers tried an onside kick that was recovered by Kyle Rudolph.
The Vikings then had one final key short-yardage play to secure a victory, and again Zimmer was aggressive.
On third-and-6 coming out of the two-minute warning, the Vikings passed, even though an incompletion would stop the clock. This time, Cousins and Diggs connected, a tremendous catch by Diggs on a ball thrown a bit behind him.
Throughout the game Zimmer watched as several of those short-yardage plays worked against his team. They team went 2-for-5 on third- and fourth-down situations under 5 yards and also had two attempts pushed back because of penalties. But Zimmer continued to trust his offense.
“We need to be better on third-and-short,” he said. “The first one [when the Vikings were going to go for it on fourth-and-1 on the opening drive] we had a penalty, I was going to go for it, it was about 4 inches. The fourth-and-2 at the end of the ballgame, I just felt like if we got that we had a chance to win.”
Still no matter how you look at it, in a game the Vikings had to win to keep their playoff and division title hopes alive, they did enough to beat a Packers team that was in the same situation.
“I thought we played good, complementary football,” Zimmer said. “The defense was playing very well, the offense was moving the ball down the field, we had a nice punt return. … All of those things turned into a win for us.”
One of the most impressive performances came from Cousins, who once again outdueled Rodgers.
The final stats showed Cousins completing 29 of 38 passes for 342 yards and three scores with no interceptions and a 129.5 passer rating. Rodgers who completed 17 of 28 passes for only 198 yards, one score and no interceptions, a 94.0 rating.
In two games vs. Green Bay this year, Cousins has completed 64 of 86 passes (74.4 percent) for 767 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. That’s good for a 123.5 passer rating.
“A great game,” Zimmer said of Cousins. “A 129.5 quarterback rating, he threw for 342 or something like that. He had a really good game. He had a couple of deep balls, or shots down the field. The one to Diggs for the touchdown [in the second quarter to tie the score 14-14], he did a nice job in the play-action and a good job in the quick game.”
And after two games where he looked a little more human than usual, Adam Thielen was back to his great play, grabbing eight passes for 125 yards and a score. In doing so, he passed Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who was honored at halftime, for the most 100-yard receiving games in a single season for the Vikings with nine.
“He made some great catches tonight, didn’t he?” Zimmer said, pointing to a particular 33-yard completion in the second quarter. “That one 7-route that he caught between two guys was a big catch. Maybe one of the better catches I have seen in a long time.”
And Diggs was just as good, finishing with eight catches for 77 yards.
“That was a great catch,” Zimmer said of Diggs’ final grab. “Those two guys can catch the football, and I am glad they are on our team.”
Yes, the offense was great. Rudolph had seven receptions, matching a season high, for 63 yards. Running back Dalvin Cook did a bit of everything, rushing for 29 yards to go with 47 receiving yards and a score.
“He made some guys miss on all of those, and that was good,” Zimmer said of Cook. “When he gets into open space that is what he can do. He can make guys miss, had some good runs, as well. I thought he played well tonight. I thought our offensive line played well.”
The Vikings defense in the second half shined in holding Rodgers to 104 passing yards on nine completions while sacking him three times.
That second-half adjustment changed the game.
“We had to change up some,” Zimmer said. “It is hard to give a guy like Rodgers a steady dose of anything. You have to change up, keep him off-balance, or try to keep him off-balance. We did a good job in coverage and a good job in rush, but more importantly we didn’t let him scramble.”
The Vikings had some sloppy moments, but in the end they got a big victory in a game they had to have before a two-game road trip to New England and then Seattle that might define their season.
“Yeah, and we needed it,” Zimmer said.
U shuts down Taylor
The Gophers football team’s defense improved drastically over its final three games, including the dominant 35-17 victory at Wisconsin on Saturday.
After giving up an average of 507.7 yards per game in their first six Big Ten contests, the Gophers gave up only 305.7 yards per game over their final three.
And while Fleck continued to say former defensive coordinator Robb Smith did a good job coaching the defense, he said that now permanent defensive coordinator Joe Rossi game plans did simplify things.
“Joe Rossi did a great job in a difficult situation with a lot of challenges,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Sunday. “We were a lot simpler. We allowed our players to play really fast and not think as much, and I think the results speak for themselves.”
And for Fleck, the biggest part of the Gophers’ victory over the Badgers was getting an extra month of practices because they are now bowl-eligible. Fleck referred to it as like having a second period of spring practice.