It took touchdowns in all three phases, an oxygen tank, a celebratory leap into the first row of seats at U.S. Bank Stadium and a second fourth-down stop, but the Vikings finally ceased their six-week-long slide Sunday with a wild, potentially season-defining 30-24 victory.
Once the NFL’s last undefeated team, the Vikings were in danger of falling to .500 with a loss to the equally desperate Arizona Cardinals. At the lowest point of their four-game losing streak, the Vikings blew a late lead in an overtime loss at home to the Detroit Lions. And now there was a here-we-go-again vibe before the yellow flag had even landed on the turf.
On fourth down, with the Vikings clinging to a six-point lead with a little over a minute left, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer got rid of an eventual incompletion just before defensive tackle Tom Johnson shoved him to the ground. Johnson’s hit, called late by the officiating crew and something unprintable by Johnson, gave Arizona a do-over.
But the pass rush, alive again after two months of dormancy, made the penalty moot and with a sack on fourth down Danielle Hunter sealed a much-needed Vikings victory.
As most of the announced 66,808 fans in the bleachers exulted, the Vikings exhaled.
“It’s been a long month,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s been a long, long, long month.”
In their first victory since Oct. 9, the Vikings totaled only 217 yards of offense and allowed do-it-all Arizona running back David Johnson to pile up 160 yards from scrimmage. But a pair of big gains was the difference as the Vikings improved their record to 6-4.
In the second quarter, with the Vikings up 13-10, the Cardinals ventured deep into Vikings territory again. Palmer, anticipating that wide receiver John Brown would break outside, threw into the end zone. But Brown got caught in traffic and the pass went right to Xavier Rhodes, who ran the interception all the way back to the other end zone.
Rhodes’ momentum-swinging, 100-yard pick-six was the longest interception return in franchise history. The cornerback celebrated by sucking in oxygen on the sideline.
“I asked for that,” said Rhodes, who added a second interception later on. “I definitely asked for that.”
After the teams combined to score 37 points in a back-and-forth first half, six of which came early on a beautiful back-shoulder grab by wideout Adam Thielen, Cordarrelle Patterson ran back the opening kickoff of the second half 104 yards for a touchdown.
The electrifying kick returner celebrated his score, which put the Vikings up 27-17, by leaping into the arms of Vikings fans sitting in the first row of seats behind the end zone.
“I just seen the fans smiling right there and I jumped. I kind of fell and I think I knocked one of their beers over,” he said. “So I’m going to have to owe that person a beer. So if he finds me, just let him know that I got two beers for him next time I see him.”
Sunday was the first time in team history the Vikings had two plays topping 100 yards.
Later in the third quarter, the Vikings increased their lead to 30-17 with a 27-yard field goal from new kicker Kai Forbath after three Arizona personal foul penalties on the drive put them in scoring position. But the visitors had some fight left in them still.
The Cardinals pulled back within one score midway through the fourth quarter after their star pass rusher, Chandler Jones, blew by left tackle T.J. Clemmings and knocked the ball out of quarterback Sam Bradford’s throwing hand. The Cardinals recovered the fumble, and six plays later Palmer hit Johnson for a 4-yard touchdown.
The Vikings recorded three sacks and four more quarterback hits on Palmer’s final 11 dropbacks.
“Coach [Zimmer] told us, ‘Just keep pounding, keep pounding,’ ” Hunter said.
In that moment on the sideline that Hunter recalled, Zimmer was talking to his pass rushers. But the third-year coach might as well have been speaking to his entire team.
After the game, Zimmer talked about there being “a lot of negativity when you lose four games” in a row and admitted this season “could have gone south really fast.” But the Vikings on Sunday finally stopped their stunning slide.
“It was weighing on everyone. I think you could feel it just at practice, in the locker room,” said Bradford, who threw for 169 yards in the win. “So the joy of winning is a great feeling. That feeling we had in the locker room today, I think it solved a lot of problems.”
Matt Vensel covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. firstname.lastname@example.org