From his living room in the Twin Cities’ east suburbs, Adam Thielen watched the Panthers’ final drive of the day in a hoodie and shorts, a football in one hand and his cellphone in the other as Carolina kicker Joey Slye lined up for a 54-yard field goal that would hand the Vikings their seventh loss if it went through the uprights.
Slye pulled the ball left and Thielen, stuck at home after positive COVID-19 tests put him out for the game, erupted with the same jubilation and disbelief that flowed out of plenty of living rooms in plenty of Twin Cities houses on Sunday.
“Yes!” Thielen yelled seven times as he leapt and pumped his fist in a video his wife, Caitlin, posted on social media. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he exulted several times, before needling the person with whom he was video-chatting about jinxing the kick.
What more fitting reaction could there be to the Vikings’ 28-27 victory, the third one-point game of their 2020 season, the fifth with a fourth-quarter lead change and the latest to keep some playoff hopes alive after a 1-5 start?
The Vikings’ winning touchdown with 46 seconds left came a week after they had allowed the go-ahead score with 1:37 left in a 31-28 loss to the Cowboys. Kirk Cousins hit two of his final seven passes in the final four minutes a week ago before connecting on six of his last seven Sunday. While Thielen was back at home watching the team he’d rooted for as a kid, Chad Beebe caught the winning touchdown pass — minutes after his muffed punt appeared to doom the Vikings’ chances.
The swings Thielen experienced as a spectator were the same ones Vikings fans have endured throughout this surreal trip through the NFL schedule. They appear not to be over yet, with the Vikings (5-6) again only one game out of a playoff spot before a Week 13 home game against the one-win Jaguars.
Sunday’s game between two four-win teams swung on a series of moments that could have sunk either club, but it also showed Cousins at his best when it mattered most, a week after a three-TD second half still found him one drive short.
These, perhaps, are the types of games the Vikings are destined to play, with a makeshift defense and a special teams group that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way.
Winning enough of them could extend a season that looked lost before the bye week more than once.
“It was great to get one after having some really close losses that were a play away earlier in the year,” said Cousins, who posted his third fourth-quarter comeback in Minnesota by throwing for 75 yards without the benefit of a timeout on the final drive. “Really encouraged by us finding a way to win despite us having so many plays we want to have back.”
A 10-7 Vikings halftime lead turned into a 21-10 deficit only one minute into the third quarter, as Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn returned fumbles from Cousins and Dalvin Cook for touchdowns on back-to-back plays from scrimmage.
And with Carolina leading 24-21 and punting the ball back to the Vikings with 2:18 to go, Beebe didn’t wave for a fair catch with the Panthers closing in on him, losing a ball that bounced off Chris Orr’s helmet and was recovered by Carolina at the Vikings 9-yard line.
“It’s my job to catch the ball and I didn’t,” said Beebe, who was returning punts for the second time this season after the Vikings deactivated K.J. Osborn. “I didn’t do my job. So I definitely felt like it was a personal deal. But at the end of the day, I came to the sideline and my teammates picked me up and they made it feel like it was a team thing. We just carried on with that confidence through the end of the game and finished strong.”
The Vikings had only one timeout (after they had spent one on a challenge of a D.J. Moore catch). But after Mike Davis gained 4 yards on first down and ran again to make the Vikings burn their final timeout, Teddy Bridgewater threw behind a wide-open Moore on a play that cost the Panthers a chance to seal the game and sent the receiver off the field because of an ankle injury he suffered while trying to reach back for the pass.
In a postgame news conference that Carolina coach Matt Rhule extended in part because he felt he needed to answer questions about all of the dubious late-game plays, he said the Panthers were rushed when officials quickly spotted the ball after the Vikings’ timeout and the play clock started sooner than Carolina expected. Bridgewater also pinned some of the issues on the rushed presnap approach.
“It was a play where we wanted to shift [wide receiver] Robby [Anderson], get a good man-zone read, see what defense they were in,” Bridgewater said. “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.”
On fourth-and-goal from the 3, Rhule opted for a 21-yard Slye field goal instead of trying to end the game. Slye had a field goal blocked earlier in the game and said his cleat got caught in the U.S. Bank Stadium turf on his missed 54-yarder at the end.
On Sunday, the what-ifs belonged to Bridgewater, the ex-Vikings quarterback who threw Thielen his first-ever touchdown pass in 2014. The Vikings’ current passer was the hero this time, able to exult the locker room with a celebration that apparently matched Thielen’s enthusiasm.
“[Cousins] was good. He’s been in those situations, we practice those things all the time,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I know he was fired up after the game. It felt good for him to be able to go out and do that and win the football game.”
And the Vikings, for a while longer, can talk about the playoffs and say they’re kidding no one.