The Vikings again stood tall in prime time, displaying a dominant defensive performance and getting some welcome balance on offense Monday night at rowdy U.S. Bank Stadium.
The roof-rattling crowd and a defense that is arguably the NFL’s best rattled New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning just as they rattled Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers on national television two weeks ago. This time, though, the outcome was hardly in doubt as the Vikings beat the Giants 24-10 to improve to 4-0.
The Giants scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to pull within seven points, but quarterback Sam Bradford and the Vikings zoomed back down the field to put the game back out of reach with a 4-yard touchdown run by Jerick McKinnon.
“That was a pretty big response for us. Obviously our defense has played fantastic all year and I think it was time for us to respond and give them a little break and allow them to catch their breath,” said Bradford, who passed for 262 yards and a touchdown. “To score and go up two possessions, that was the biggest turning point of the game.”
The defense took over from there, holding the Giants scoreless the rest of the way.
The Giants came into the game with one of the league’s most productive offenses, with Manning airing it out to a trio of talented wideouts led by All-Pro Odell Beckham Jr. But the Vikings kept Manning and Beckham, who connected three times for only 23 yards, in check.
Just as it did with Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers last weekend and Rodgers the week before that, coach Mike Zimmer’s defense did not allow Manning to get comfortable. While the Vikings were unable to sack Manning, the pressure they applied in third-and-long situations disrupted his timing and quickly ended most Giants drives.
“The key to it was being able to get a good push and get around his feet,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “When they do those quick passes, you’ve got to be able to run and tackle well. Our [defensive backs] did a great job of being on those receivers.”
The Vikings offense, meanwhile, was steady again, making it four consecutive games to open the season without turning the ball over. Perhaps the most encouraging development was that the running game finally got traction after a sluggish start to the season.
McKinnon, now the lead running back with Adrian Peterson on injured reserve, popped a few long gains, including a 25-yarder in the first half. He finished with 85 yards and the Vikings totaled more than 100 rushing yards as a team for the first time this season.
“It’s starting to come together,” right guard Brandon Fusco said. “I think you saw some signs of what we can be. It’s a step forward and we have to keep it going.”
The Vikings scored first following a muffed punt by the Giants near midfield. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, back in the gunner role on special teams, sped down the field to put heat on Giants punt returner Dwayne Harris, who dropped the punt. Cornerback Marcus Sherels, the other gunner, was there to pounce on it.
Patterson, who had played only 13 offensive snaps in the team’s first three games, made an impact on offense, too. The 2013 first-round draft pick ended up playing more than first-string split end Charles Johnson and caught five passes. He had two catches in all of 2015.
On the ensuing drive after Harris muffed the punt, the Vikings took a 7-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Matt Asiata. The Vikings doubled their lead in the second quarter when Bradford threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Bradford and Rudolph have teamed up for a touchdown in three consecutive games.
Up 14-3 early in the third quarter, the Vikings squandered a scoring opportunity when Blair Walsh pulled a 46-yard field-goal attempt wide left. The struggling kicker’s latest miss came after Bradford hit Johnson for a 30-yard gain.
Walsh would soon get another crack at the uprights. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes picked off Manning and returned the interception across midfield. This Vikings drive stalled, too, but this time Walsh was good from 44 yards.
The Giants got into the end zone early in the fourth quarter. Paul Perkins, their rookie running back, caught a screen pass, slipped out of a tackle attempt by middle linebacker Eric Kendricks and wove his way 67 yards to the Vikings 4-yard line. Orleans Darkwa punched it in at the goal line to pull the Giants within 17-10.
But Bradford completed all five of his passes on the ensuing drive, including a 40-yarder down the sideline to Johnson, to set up McKinnon’s game-sealing touchdown run.
Now, at the one-quarter mark of the 2016 season, the Vikings are one of three unbeaten teams in the NFL.
“I think this team likes to win,” Zimmer said. “I just think they like to compete and go out there and prove that they can be talked about as one of the best teams in the league.”
Matt Vensel covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org