With the Vikings up by five points and protecting their own end zone with 16 seconds to play on Sunday, safety Camryn Bynum backpedaled to the goal line, broke on Mike White's pass for Corey Davis and became the fourth member of a club that's been formed either by good fortune, shrewd operation or some combination of the two.
The 2022 Vikings are now 10-2, having defeated the Jets 27-22 in the latest performance of an escape act that's by now bordering on the absurd.
How unthinkable has it become? In each of the season's four months, the Vikings have closed out a game with a different member of their secondary recording a takeaway on the team's final defensive play. Josh Metellus intercepted Jared Goff's Hail Mary in September against Detroit. Cameron Dantzler stripped Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a game-sealing fumble in October against Chicago. Patrick Peterson picked off Josh Allen in overtime in November against Buffalo. And on Sunday, Bynum iced the Vikings' first game of December by intercepting White's fourth-down pass and sliding to the U.S. Bank Stadium turf.
The Vikings have now won all nine of their one-score games this year, one short of the NFL record for the most one-score victories in a season. Their stockpile of close victories — and their lack of blowout wins — is one of the facts cited most by those who question their legitimacy as a contender. There is a certain amount of randomness in tight games, the thinking goes, that makes a pattern of close victories unsustainable; a last-second, game-tying field-goal attempt, for example, might not always fall harmlessly to the ground after hitting an upright and a crossbar.
There's a growing belief in the Vikings' locker room, however, that they've acquired enough situational awareness and mental fortitude to win a majority of such games, especially after having played in so many through the first 13 weeks of the season. After Sunday's win, in which the Vikings kept the Jets from scoring touchdowns in five of their six trips to the red zone and turned New York away not once, but twice, in the final two minutes, it became a little tougher to argue with them.
"We always talk about, 'We don't have to make it that way,'" safety Harrison Smith said. "But it's good practice for us. It's not always what we want, but if you're getting great reps — that's a high-stress environment. Like, all these games are playoff environments in the fourth quarter. That's not how you draw it up, but that could pay dividends."
It seemed late in the first half, when the Vikings had a 17-3 lead, the ball on the Jets' 43 with 1:58 to go before halftime and the second-half kickoff coming their way, that they could turn this game into their first comfortable victory since their Week 1 win over the Packers.
But the Vikings could only manage a field goal before halftime and posted only 10 yards on 12 third-quarter plays, with Kirk Cousins missing T.J. Hockenson downfield on his second throw of the second half and Justin Jefferson's drop costing the Vikings a big gain two plays later.
"We just couldn't convert those plays," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "Whether it's Kirk throwing to T.J. Hockenson or Justin Jefferson in those looks, we felt great about the looks. I felt the line held up in those moments, and I expect those guys to make those plays. They will and they have all season long. Would have helped with that lull, and then just another example of us really not taking advantage of a lead at halftime, and then ultimately coming out and putting somebody away."
Jets quarterback Mike White, meanwhile, dropped back 34 times in the second half without being sacked, throwing for 258 yards in the final two quarters against a Minnesota secondary that lost Akayleb Evans because of a concussion for the second time this season. White hit Garrett Wilson for 60 yards to set up a field goal early in the fourth quarter that made the score 20-15.
Cousins then completed all five of his passes for 62 yards on the Vikings' next drive, operating from a clean pocket and finding Jefferson for a touchdown and 27-15 lead. The receiver's hesitation froze cornerback D.J. Reed before he broke outside, and Cousins hit him for a 10-yard score. Afterward, Reed said it was like Jefferson "was running eight different routes" on the play.
"Kind of just waddle him to sleep a little bit on that play," Jefferson said, "and it was a good spot by Kirk."
But the Jets came back with a score to pull back within 27-22. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur had center Connor McGovern pull around the left side of the line, blocking linebacker Eric Kendricks as Zonovan Knight raced to the sideline. The 48-yard run put the Jets in range of the go-ahead touchdown, and after officials ruled White was short of the goal line on his fourth-down run, Jets coach Robert Saleh challenged the ruling and a video review awarded White a 1-yard touchdown.
The Jets forced a three-and-out, White completed passes of 23 and 31 yards to Davis and the Vikings were again at risk of losing the lead. But with Jordan Hicks in tight coverage on fourth down, Braxton Berrios dropped White's throw in the end zone.
"If he did [get a hand on it] or not, it really doesn't matter," Berrios said. "It was there. Mike put it in the only place that he could, and you have to come down with that one."
The Vikings couldn't put the game away with a first down, though, which meant it was time for one more stand from the defense.
"I know they're running double in-cuts all game that got us a few times on that last series," Bynum said. "Mainly all the big plays were in-breaking plays."
As soon as White's eyes came to Davis running that in-breaking dig route, Bynum said he knew "that was going to be mine. Thank God for coming up with it in the clutch."
A victory in Detroit next week would clinch the Vikings' first NFC North title since 2017, and their first home playoff game since the Minneapolis Miracle.
If these Vikings end up in a postseason game as nerve-racking for their fans as Sunday's was, they're confident they'll be ready to do what's necessary.
"I was talking to one of the coaches [about this] last week," Kendricks said. "You know, it's hectic, it's stressful, but at the end of the day, I'm addicted to it. I feel like we're all addicted to it a little bit. We've got to be a little bit crazy to be out there in the first place. We've lived in those big moments, and we come up big, too, in those big moments."