INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Vikings had lost two in a row, traveling west after perhaps their most tumultuous week of the season, and were set to play the Chargers without Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce, Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith or Patrick Peterson.
The fact they have Justin Jefferson on their roster means there's always an avenue available by which offensive football becomes a little simpler. They made full use of it at the most important moments of their 27-20 victory at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
The final three passes Kirk Cousins threw to Jefferson, on a day where the receiver caught nine for 143 yards, came on third downs. The first drew an 11-yard pass interference penalty on Chris Harris, keeping alive a drive that put the Vikings ahead for good. The second helped them avoid a three-and-out on a TD drive that put them up 10. And the last — a 27-yard leaping grab over Tevaughn Campbell that stood up to a Chargers challenge — meant the Vikings would extend a drive that began with their third holding penalty of the day, eventually ending it with Cousins in victory formation after he found Adam Thielen for 18 yards on third-and-20 and Dalvin Cook gained 4 yards on a fourth-down toss.
Yes, things can be more straightforward than the Vikings have made them in recent weeks, when their two Pro Bowl receivers combined for 13 catches in back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Ravens. Coach Mike Zimmer said he knew Jefferson "was very frustrated" about his lack of targets, adding he pulled the receiver aside this week and promised to get him involved.
"I told him, 'You have to do something for me, and that's come out here and practice real hard and do the things you're supposed to do, and study and be precise in your routes, and we're gonna get you the ball,'" Zimmer said.
It would seem to be an obvious part of the Vikings' game plan every week (though Zimmer chided offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak for admitting as much in his Thursday news conference), but on Sunday, the Vikings jump-started their offense against the league's third-best pass defense simply by trusting Jefferson and Thielen.
Cousins found both receivers with middle-of-the-field strikes against the Chargers' split-safety looks, and trusted Jefferson in particular to make contested catches along the sidelines. He had two 27-yard leaping grabs against Campbell, screaming and pumping his fists after the fourth-quarter catch. Replays showed he kept his hand under the ball as he went to the ground, costing Los Angeles coach Brandon Staley a timeout when his challenge failed.
"I didn't think they were going to overturn it," Jefferson said. "I knew I caught it."
Jefferson said the Vikings made a "big adjustment" this week with an emphasis on getting the ball to their best players, adding Cousins knew he could throw the ball up to him whenever the Chargers defense gave them a certain look.
If it's puzzling it took the Vikings this long to get there, they couldn't have afforded to wait much longer.
The victory — the Vikings' first since their bye week and second on the road this season — moved them to 4-5, kept them tied for the NFC's last playoff spot and changed the tenor of a week that might have involved some unsettling questions had they gone into a home game with the Packers at 3-6.
The Vikings outgained the Chargers 194-98 in total yards in the first half but were flagged eight times for 93 yards, including a Christian Darrisaw holding penalty that wiped out a Cousins touchdown pass to C.J. Ham and turned the drive into a field goal.
They gave up a Chargers touchdown drive with 1:30 left in the half, bringing the total of points they've allowed in the final two minutes of the first half to an NFL-worst 52. After burning all three of their timeouts in an effort to get the ball back, the Vikings ran Cook for a loss of 3 yards on first down. Cousins threw incomplete under pressure on second and third downs, and the Vikings punted after holding the ball for just 19 seconds.
Only a Xavier Woods breakup on Justin Herbert's third-down throw to Jared Cook kept the Chargers from getting a second scoring drive together in the final minutes, and the Vikings led 13-10 at halftime.
Herbert directed a 75-yard touchdown drive to give the Chargers the lead at the beginning of the second half, and Los Angeles forced a three-and-out on the Vikings' next drive. At the point where it needed to stand up, though, the Vikings defense was at its best.
Rookie safety Camryn Bynum, starting again with Harrison Smith on the COVID-19 list, sacked Herbert on a third-down blitz to force a punt. That led to the Vikings' go-ahead touchdown drive, when a pressured Cousins floated a pass to Tyler Conklin on fourth-and-goal from the 1 — the tight end's second TD catch of the day, doubling his career total to four.
The Vikings affected Herbert with pressure on two incompletions on the following drive, then went up by 10 on Cook's 1-yard touchdown run with 9:29 left in the game.
Herbert's 195 passing yards matched his season low; the Chargers' 253 yards of offense were their second-fewest of the season.
"I really think the corners did a nice job of challenging these guys. These are two really good receivers [Keenan Allen and Mike Williams], and the tight end [Jared Cook]'s a good player, too," Zimmer said. "So I thought we did a nice job."
He also singled out Eric Kendricks' second-quarter interception as "big-time" and praised his sack on the Chargers' first pass attempt.
When it came time to close the game out, Zimmer said, he didn't want the Chargers getting the ball with a chance for Herbert to tie the game. Ahead 27-20 with 2:32 left, they opted to go for it (on a day where they also tried a fake punt for the second week in a row before officials blew the play dead).
Cook got to the right corner on the toss play, and the Vikings offense — which has spent so many weeks frantically trying to come back, or nervously watching the defense attempt to stop a late rally — got to end its day in victory formation.
"It's the best formation in football," said Conklin, who also had a 5-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. "Every week, you have your Saturday walk-through and you get in victory formation, and that's what you want to be in at the end of the day on Sunday."
It's so much simpler that way.