LAS VEGAS — After each of the Vikings' 20 wins under Kevin O'Connell, the team's digital media crew records the coach's postgame locker room speech and posts it on the Vikings' website shortly thereafter. The video of O'Connell's postgame speech following Sunday's 3-0 win over the Raiders was the first of its kind in franchise history.
It had to be, because the only other time the Vikings won a game by that score, the internet wasn't around yet.
The last time was Nov. 14, 1971, when Bud Grant's Vikings beat Dan Devine's Packers at Metropolitan Stadium on a 25-yard Fred Cox field goal. Gary Cuozzo threw for 42 yards in the win, and the Vikings intercepted Packers quarterbacks Scott Hunter and Zeke Bratkowski a combined three times.
It seemed preposterous to suggest O'Connell would be the next coach to win a game in the same fashion, especially on a day the Vikings greeted with optimism after a bye week to redress their offense and welcome Justin Jefferson back to the lineup. But here he was in the visiting locker room at Allegiant Stadium, speaking truth about the Vikings' current state and the means by which it seems they must win.
"Let me just tell you something: This defense is a championship defense," he said, before telling the room that every defensive player and coach would get a game ball. "I trust [I can] coach the game, call the game, whatever you want to call it, knowing that sometimes you've got to let the strength of your group in its current form lead the way. Every single time you guys had to make a play, you did. Every single time we were backed against the wall, on the road, you guys made a play, and I commend you for that."
A Vikings defense that had not ranked better than 24th in the league in three seasons is, right now, the unmistakable heart of the team. It fashioned the first shutout since Mike Zimmer's top-ranked defense shut out the Packers (minus an injured Aaron Rodgers) on Dec. 23, 2017, and didn't allow an offensive touchdown for the second consecutive game.
The group allowed last-minute scoring drives in a pair of close losses before the bye. On Sunday, after Greg Joseph scored the game's only points on a 36-yard field goal with 1 minute, 57 seconds left, undrafted rookie linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. picked off Aidan O'Connell on the next offensive play to end any chance of a comeback.
It was the first 3-0 NFL game since Nov. 26, 2007, when the Steelers beat the Dolphins on a field so soaked by rain, Brandon Fields' third-quarter punt burrowed a divot into the field and stopped like an approach shot in golf. There were no such conditions on Sunday, in a game played indoors, but a withering set of injuries to the Vikings' offensive starters and the general dysfunction of their passing game meant they'd need their defense to pitch a shutout. They went eight of 20 on third downs, netted only 99 passing yards and had two drives longer than 40 yards.
"We tried to overcome some health adversity on offense, and just didn't have a very good day of execution, either pitching or catching or sustaining drives. So we really leaned on them," Kevin O'Connell said. "Certainly, we can all do better on offense, but you win the turnover battle, and your defense plays the way they did, you've got a chance to win in this league."
This is where O'Connell's second Vikings team is, trying to crowbar its way into the playoffs by counting on Brian Flores' defense and mustering up enough points to overcome a lack of the cohesiveness it expected to have on offense. After O'Connell spent the bye week evaluating the team's quarterback options, he decided to give Joshua Dobbs a fourth start on Sunday in Las Vegas. Dobbs, who had turned the ball over six times in the Vikings' previous two games, did not do so against the Raiders. But in the fourth quarter, after he'd completed only 10 of his 23 passes for 63 yards, O'Connell decided he'd seen enough.
He swapped Dobbs out for Nick Mullens, who led two of the Vikings' three longest drives of the day and hit Jordan Addison on a third-and-6 that went for 20 yards after Addison slipped a tackle along the Vikings' sideline. Four plays later, Joseph kicked the field goal to win the game.
"It was a collective effort," Mullens said. "You obviously never know when your name is going to be called, but you just prepare, work as hard as you can and just trust that there's a plan out there for you. And so I did that: stepped in, and the guys did an incredible job. We had a tough day, just a game like that where it's up and down. You never know what's gonna happen. I just told them, 'You know, it's been a hard day. We just need your best.' And I thought collectively, we were able to do that."
The Vikings finished the game without right tackle Brian O'Neill, who sprained his left ankle, and running back Alexander Mattison, who sprained his right ankle. Left guard Dalton Risner exited in the second half because of a leg injury before returning, and wide receiver Jalen Nailor ended the day in the concussion protocol.
But no injury changed the game more than one to Jefferson. He leapt to catch Dobbs' hard throw over the middle in the second quarter, and absorbed a violent shot from safety Marcus Epps after hauling in the 15-yard pass. Jefferson got up with his right hand on the lower right side of his back, and winced in pain before the Vikings called him off the field. He doubled over in a discussion with head athletic trainer Uriah Myrie, and after a brief examination in the medical tent, the Vikings brought him to the locker room.
They sent Jefferson to a hospital as a precaution. O'Connell said afterward the Vikings were initially concerned the receiver had suffered an internal chest injury that might keep him from traveling home with the team, but Jefferson returned to the stadium after an examination showed he'd avoided the worst. There was initial optimism he'd be ready to play against the Bengals on Saturday, though O'Connell said the Vikings will monitor him throughout the week.
The Vikings had planned for Jefferson to be a major part of their game plan, and they struggled to handle pressures they weren't necessarily expecting from a Raiders team that blitzes less than any in the league.
"We didn't really see that much on tape. But we've got to be able to win for those guys," Hockenson said. "And we've got to be able to trust that we'll make some plays that were left out on the field. I think we're all excited to get back out on the field next week and move on."
They could make Mullens their fourth starting quarterback of the year on Saturday against the Bengals. They'll hope to get their starters back, and they'll need to revive an offense that's scored 13 points in its past two games.
But they left Las Vegas on Sunday night with a victory that, however unusual its form, carried precious value for their playoff fight.
"It's hard to win in the NFL. It's hard to win on the road," Mullens said. "So you got to enjoy it. Long travel, you spend more time with your teammates and have a good time. So we're gonna enjoy it."
THE BARE MINIMUM
This is the seventh time in the Super Bowl era that there has been a 3-0 game; the Vikings have won two of them.
Nov. 14, 1971: @Vikings over Green Bay; FG: Fred Cox 25, fourth quarter
Oct. 16 1977: @Buffalo over Atlanta; FG: Neil O'Donoghue 30, second quarter
Dec, 16, 1979: @Tampa Bay over Kansas City; FG: Neil O'Donoghue 19, fourth quarter
Dec. 12, 1982: @New England over Miami; FG: John Smith 33, fourth quarter
Dec. 11, 1993: N.Y. Jets over @Washington; FG: Cary Blanchard 45, first quarter
Nov. 26, 2007: @Pittsburgh over Miami; FG: Jeff Reed 24, fourth quarter
Dec. 10, 2023: Vikings over @Las Vegas; FG: Greg Joseph 36, fourth quarter