CARSON, Calif. – The football rested on the Chargers 36-yard line in the final seconds of the first half Sunday, sitting there almost as a gift for Ifeadi Odenigbo on a play on which his hands had already been one of six sets that had touched it.
Los Angeles center Scott Quessenberry’s hands were first, as he snapped the ball to quarterback Philip Rivers with the Chargers pursuing a go-ahead score before halftime. Rivers stepped back to avoid Scott Tevi, the tackle Danielle Hunter had flattened just in front of him, and had the ball swatted from his right hand as Hunter’s left arm wrapped around him.
Odenigbo was the first player with a chance to corral the loose ball, which squirted away from him and bounded toward running back Austin Ekeler, in the Chargers’ chance for a reprieve. But Eric Kendricks drove it away from him — in a move the linebacker argued, with mock indignation, should have earned him a forced fumble in the final stat sheet — and there was almost a split-second of calm as Odenigbo collected the ball.
He headed toward the end zone with Hunter guiding his way, spread his arms to celebrate and posed behind the goalposts of a 25,000-seat soccer stadium that was filled with fans of the visiting team, which then rolled to a 39-10 victory.
“That was my first-ever career touchdown. Never got one in high school, never got one in college,” Odenigbo said. “So to be able to do that in L.A. is pretty neat.”
It was fitting the 56-yard score had such a surreal nature, as the pivotal point of a game that at times bordered on the absurd. The meaning of the victory, though, was strikingly simple: Thanks to a defensive feat they hadn’t pulled off in nearly a quarter-century, the Vikings are closer than ever to their third playoff berth in five years.
Their defense brushed itself off toward the end of a rocky first half, taking advantage of the gifts the 38-year-old Rivers and the Chargers’ fumble-prone running backs seemed happy to give. The Vikings forced seven turnovers for the first time since a 44-24 victory over the Steelers on Sept. 24, 1995, scoring 20 points off those takeaways and splitting open a game that had once appeared in doubt.
The Vikings are not in the playoffs yet, though they could have one of the NFC’s two unclaimed spots locked up before they play again, if the Rams lose to the 49ers on Saturday night. They, in all likelihood, will have to advance through the postseason away from U.S. Bank Stadium — where they are the NFL’s only undefeated home team — because they would need the Packers to lose at the last-place Lions in Week 17 to have any chance of winning the division title.
But their chances of playing an underwhelming NFC East champion as the conference’s top wild card also improved, after the 49ers lost to the Falcons. A San Francisco loss to the Rams or Seahawks in the season’s final two weeks would put the Vikings in position to win a tiebreaker with the 49ers, provided they are able to win their own final games vs. the Packers and Bears.
“Ten wins is a good place to be, but there’s a better place to be, and that’d be 11 or 12,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “The NFC’s pretty talented at the top, so it’s going to take a great effort these last two weeks to get seeded and get in. And additionally, we’ve got to be playing really good football to have a chance as we get in the playoffs, because the NFC’s loaded with talent.”
The Vikings allowed the Chargers to convert five of their first six third downs, as Rivers continually went to work on the Vikings cornerbacks with hitch routes that gave his big receivers chances to box out defenders as they worked back for the ball. Coach Mike Zimmer rotated Mike Hughes, Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes as his outside corners early in the game, turning to Holton Hill once Rhodes left for part of the game because of a calf injury.
Los Angeles took a 10-9 lead early in the second quarter as Rivers hit Mike Williams for a 2-yard score with Hughes in coverage.
Rivers threw a third-down jump ball off his back foot that Harrison Smith intercepted in the second quarter, only for the Vikings to give the ball back once Melvin Ingram III quickly read a screen pass and backed off Riley Reiff to drop into coverage and pick off Cousins. Rivers moved the Chargers into scoring range with three consecutive hitches toward Hughes, connecting on two of them. But the Chargers’ brigade of turnovers was only beginning.
“I think Ifeadi’s touchdown at the end of the half was the play of the game, for a lot of reasons,” Cousins said.
It turned what could have been a Chargers lead before halftime into a 19-10 margin for the Vikings. Melvin Gordon’s second fumble of the day came on the first play of the second half, leading to a Vikings field goal, one of four kicked by Dan Bailey. The closest the Chargers would get to scoring again was on a drive that reached the Vikings 15 with Los Angeles trailing 25-10. Rivers overthrew Williams in the end zone on fourth down. Each of the Chargers’ next two possessions would end in turnovers (a Hunter Henry fumble and a Hughes pick of Rivers).
“We had seven fumbles all year [before Sunday], so we can hold on to the football,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “I give Zim and his staff a lot of credit, because they forced those turnovers, but we’ve got to do a better job, period.”
For the second time in three weeks, the Vikings were set to fly home with concerns about Dalvin Cook’s shoulder, after the running back was twisted down and landed awkwardly on a third-quarter carry. The Vikings quickly ruled out Cook’s return to the game, though he watched the rest of the game on the sidelines with teammates instead of heading to the locker room for further tests. Backup Mike Boone ran for two fourth-quarter scores.
Their issues in the secondary will merit attention again, after Rivers hit five throws of 14 yards or more in the first half. “We were fortunate [Sunday] in some things,” Zimmer said. “Rivers is a great quarterback. He’s got terrific receivers. We were very fortunate.”
Another victory at home, or a Rams loss in one of the final two weeks, though, would guarantee their season will continue. On Sunday, they could thank an opportunistic defense for restoring order.
“It was a rough first half,” said wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who hauled in his eighth pass of 40 yards or more from Cousins. “We had some miscues and some errors we tried to avoid. Things happen and the defense held it down.”