In the days following the Vikings' 40-3 loss to the Cowboys, players went through their usual postmortem under head coach Kevin O'Connell. They watched through the game. They re-watched clips of errors that coaches wanted to emphasize as teaching points. There was no proverbial burning of the film from a loss that concluded just four days before Thursday night's kickoff against the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But at least one player wanted to. Receiver Justin Jefferson did not hide the burns from the most lopsided loss of his football playing career. His teams, from Destrehan High School just outside New Orleans to LSU to the Vikings, don't often lose like that. The previous worst was a 36-point playoff loss in his last high school game in December 2016.
"If we would've just lost by three, seven, 10 points, it wouldn't be as bad," Jefferson said. "People lose games. We're not expected to go undefeated for the rest of the season. Things happen, it's the NFL. There's good teams we're playing. It's just the fact we lost by 37 points at home. It's just embarrassing."
The Vikings haven't exactly set the best table for Jefferson's first appearance in the NFL's Thanksgiving Day spotlight. But another superhuman effort from him — à la Randy Moss' three-touchdown performance against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving in 1998 — would go a long way to revive a reeling offense. That's no easy task with Thursday night's dinner guests being master tactician Bill Belichick and the Patriots' fourth-ranked defense.
Jefferson, who trails only Miami's Tyreek Hill with 1,093 receiving yards, is eager to get his production and the Vikings' standout season back on track.
"We have a chance to move on faster than normal," said Jefferson, who with 55 receiving yards can pass Moss for most yardage in a player's first three NFL seasons. "We're just so glad we can play Thursday, get this loss out of our mind and get back to where we would like to be."
'Got to keep going'
Jefferson absorbed the most starlight at the peak of the Vikings' seven-game win streak that ended Sunday. Three days after his legendary one-handed catch in Buffalo on Nov. 13, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced another pair of his gloves and an arm sleeve would be enshrined. He already has a pair of gloves and a game ball in Canton from his record-setting rookie season in 2020.
"Every single year I've been doing something to get in there," Jefferson said. "It's been a blessing, just being in my situation, making that catch and putting us in good situations to win. It's an honor, it's a blessing, and I've definitely got to keep going."
Dallas' pass-rushing phenom, Micah Parsons, then buried the Vikings offense and quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was sacked a career-worst seven times in Sunday's loss. Jefferson was grounded with three catches for 33 yards. A day later, the 23-year-old spoke candidly about wanting to see quicker adjustments in the play calls.
"Kirk getting sacked before you're even getting out of your break, it's definitely a tough situation," Jefferson said. "We just got to move toward more quick game. Getting the ball out quicker, just putting the ball in space and letting people work."
O'Connell pointed to varying factors for the offensive rock bottom. The Vikings had a season-worst three points and 183 yards while converting 1 of 11 third downs. Those critical downs were lost before the snap. The Vikings needed 19 yards or more on each of the last four third-down attempts while trying to claw back.
The offense failed each time. Cousins and receivers needed seconds that the Cowboys pass rush didn't allow. O'Connell said there aren't many successful quick-throwing play calls for the long third downs they faced.
"If you guys know any of those, just let me know," he said.
The Vikings need better production on earlier downs, added O'Connell, who pointed to the coaching staff's previous in-game adjustments this season when asked about Jefferson's comments.
"I can remember times this year where we've been able to do that and obviously [Sunday] was not up to our standard in any way, shape or form," said O'Connell, adding that he has a constant dialogue with Jefferson.
"Ultimately, Justin knows we're going to do whatever we can to try to move the football in the best interest of our offense," O'Connell said.
A difficult rebound
Moving the ball won't be easy against Belichick's Patriots. The 70-year-old head coach with more wins in NFL history behind only Don Shula has seen every route combination and run blocking design in the book.
But Belichick hasn't seen many talents like Jefferson, whom the coach put in rarefied air with former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski when asked about Jefferson sliding in the draft. Jefferson was taken 22nd overall in 2020; Gronkowski was the 42nd pick in 2010.
"You're talking about Hall of Fame guys that are, you know, not in the top 10," Belichick told Boston reporters this week. "It's obviously an inexact science."
Cracking the Patriots defense is also a tough equation.
New England has allowed only one 100-yard runner — the Packers' Aaron Jones — and just two 100-yard receivers. A disruptive defensive front is led by edge rusher Matthew Judon, who has a league-leading 13 sacks; defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr.; and linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley.
"It's going to be a heck of a challenge for our guys up front," O'Connell said. "Obviously sacks affect the game as much as anything, but we want to be able to run the football. We want to be able to do the things that allow us to kind of stay true to who we'd like to be."
The Patriots also have the least-penalized defense in the league. They play clean all around, said Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who was held to five catches for 28 yards in a 2018 loss at New England.
"They're just so detailed," Thielen added. "They don't make mistakes. They're not dropping coverages. They take away what the offense is really good at. They find weaknesses and they expose them. I think that's why it's a great test for us this week."
Belichick has built the reputation for taking away an offense's best threat. Will the Patriots do everything to stop Jefferson?
"Some of the catches he's made, you couldn't cover him much better than he's being covered when he's coming down with the ball," Belichick said. "Doubling him sounds a lot easier than it really is. You've got to find him, you've got to get the right guys on him and then there's other guys to worry about, too. It's not like he's all they've got. You got to pay attention to Cook. He'll kill you in a hurry, too."
The Cowboys found a way through relentless pressure on Cousins. The Vikings will need even more routes to get the ball to Jefferson against another strong front and a Patriots secondary — featuring veteran safety Devin McCourty and cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones — that will likely make Jefferson the center of attention at one of his favorite times of year.
Jefferson's family will be at U.S. Bank Stadium watching him play, and "getting the win will set everything over the top," he said Monday.
"I love Thanksgiving," he added. "I love just being with the family, being generous and just being grateful of everything that's going on. We're 8-2, it's still something to be proud of and we have a chance to move forward Thursday."