CHARLOTTE, N.C. – K.J. Osborn, the unfamiliar receiver who's making a name for himself in the shadows of superstar teammates, was an afterthought before the Vikings snapped the ball on the two biggest plays in the game-winning drive that beat the Panthers 34-28 in overtime at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
"Cover those guys," he said of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, "and leave me open. That's love. That's cool."
That's also not something teams can still afford to do and expect to beat the Vikings. Sunday, Osborn caught a 13-yarder on third-and-3 and ended the game by throwing his helmet — à la Stefon Diggs in the Minneapolis Miracle — after a 27-yard game-winning touchdown catch from Kirk Cousins.
"When the game's been on the line, he's produced," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I really believe that Kirk has a lot of confidence in him."
On the third-and-3 from the Vikings 43, Osborn beat his man and was separating nicely when the well-protected Cousins got to him in his progression.
"He's not the primary [read]," Cousins said. "He's really the third guy. JJ and Adam were the primary, as I guess you could guess."
Cousins passed on those two, not wanting to force things, and ended up going to the guy who is making clutch catches late in games look routine.
"K.J. [was open] on the deep cross across the field, which is low-percentage in terms of the odds of getting to it," Cousins said. "But when he had that kind of separation, I felt I had to throw it. And I thought it was a really good catch because the ball was a little bit behind him."
Osborn caught the ball for a 13-yard gain. Of course he did.
In Weeks 1-3, Osborn caught all seven targets thrown to him on third and fourth downs. He converted four of them for first downs, including a fourth-and-4 in which he dived to grab a bullet pass for 6 yards to set up the game-tying 53-yard field goal as the fourth quarter ended in Cincinnati in Week 1.
Not bad for a 2020 fifth-rounder who didn't play a down on offense last year.
"I love K.J. for a lot of reasons," running back Dalvin Cook said. "He just kept his head down. He believes, man. To see him work and take that wide receiver three spot behind two good guys.
"You can be hidden behind those guys. They get so many touches, but KJ is so wide open sometimes, you've just got to give him the ball."
The Vikings' primary No. 3 receiver in 2019 was Bisi Johnson. He had 31 catches for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
Last year, Chad Beebe was the primary No. 3 guy. He caught 20 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns.
Both of those guys were injured and lost before the season. There was angst even as Osborn continued to turn heads in training camp and the preseason.
Six games later, Osborn already has 26 catches for 311 yards and two touchdowns while also embracing the grunt work of chipping defensive ends in pass protection and blocking downfield for Cook.
Sunday, he was rewarded with a game ball. He walked into his news conference carrying the ball, saying he'd keep this one after giving his mom the ball from his first NFL touchdown back in Week 2 at Arizona.
Reflecting Sunday's touchdown, he admitted he "probably was the second read" on the play. Cousins confirmed that he was.
"Pre-snap, I didn't feel good about it, but there's always the post-snap read," Cousins said. "Post-snap, the corner squatted a little bit on the curl route by JJ."
"So I figured I would put it over [the corner's] head and let K.J. go get it," Cousins said.
Mission accomplished as the ball and Osborn arrived simultaneously at the front left pylon.
"What I loved was K.J.'s ability to go get it and his ability to finish and not let it be down at the 1," Cousins said. "That's a great example of K.J.'s ability."