For the sixth time in his seven games as Vikings coach, Kevin O'Connell addressed a victorious locker room on Sunday, his voice swelling as he told players about his confidence they would pull out another close game, and rising again as he called them an "ascending team" that might someday win more comfortably.
O'Connell handed game balls to Jordan Hicks, the former Cardinals linebacker who came up with a key fourth-down stop in the Vikings' 34-26 victory over Arizona, and to Patrick Peterson, the eight-time Pro Bowler for the Cardinals whose three pass breakups gave him the chance to shout rejoinders at the team he felt had cast him aside two years ago.
The coach had another game ball, he said, for Za'Darius Smith, whose three sacks of Kyler Murray gave him 8½ in his first seven games with the Vikings after the Packers let him go.
"Right before that last play he made, I went over and said, 'Hey, I need one more,'" O'Connell said. "And he goes and gets it, and he was the first one to tell me about it."
With minimal salary cap space to adjust a roster that had missed the playoffs two consecutive seasons, the Vikings operated on a belief O'Connell's coaching staff could coax more out of their existing lineup and they could receive important contributions from modestly priced free-agent acquisitions. They are still months from knowing whether that belief was well-founded, but as they finished their fifth consecutive victory, it seemed as plausible as ever they could be right.
The Vikings shook off their season-long third-quarter woes with two touchdowns in 1 minute, 40 seconds of game time, finishing their second scoring drive as Jalen Reagor — acquired for a 2023 seventh-round and a 2024 conditional fourth-round pick in August — drew the Cardinals' attention on pre-snap motion for the second time in the game, opening up space for Dalvin Cook's 4-yard TD run to give the Vikings a 28-17 lead.
On fourth down, with the Vikings up eight and 2:39 remaining, Hicks stopped Eno Benjamin 1 yard short of a first down on a reception over the middle, forcing a turnover on downs. Smith's final sack pushed the Cardinals to the brink as the clock ticked down; Harrison Phillips, another offseason acquisition, provided the final sack to seal the win.
"Every single week we talk to our team about what it's going to take to win the game. Real definitive things — not just coach-speak," O'Connell said. "What are the things we've really got to focus in on all three phases to win the football game? When you do that to a smart football team that has great leadership, you'd be shocked at how much you see those things come to life."
The Vikings focused this week on limiting the Cardinals' running game on first and second downs; Arizona ran for 73 yards on 19 first- and second-down carries. The defense sacked Murray four times and intercepted him twice, including once when the quarterback tried to avoid a safety. On offense, O'Connell emphasized the Vikings' run game: Cook carried 20 times for 111 yards, Alexander Mattison added a rushing touchdown and Kirk Cousins scored the Vikings' first points with an improbable 17-yard scramble.
Minnesota also committed 10 penalties for 86 yards, after heading into the bye week as one of the NFL's least-penalized teams. Greg Joseph had a field-goal attempt blocked and missed an extra-point try that would have given the Vikings a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter. But the Vikings hit enough of O'Connell's objectives, with sufficient help from enough of their offseason pickups, to win.
"A team that's resilient, that finds ways to win, that's really come together — first year of a coaching staff, a bunch of changes — it's special, man. You don't see that very often," Hicks said. "[It's] leadership from the top down. Every week, we understand what the game plan is: I understand what the offense is trying to do, the offense understands what the defenses is trying to do."
Winning also gave the Vikings a 3 1/2 -game lead over the Packers and the Bears just seven games into Minnesota's schedule.
The Vikings got the ball first, and for the third time in four games, they turned their opening drive into a touchdown. Their 10-play, 75-yard march started with five straight runs, and ended with seven points because of Cousins' arm and legs.
He hit Justin Jefferson for 28 yards on a deep shot off play action. Three plays later, he scrambled away from pressure, beating Zach Allen and Markus Golden to the right sideline and diving for the pylon ahead of Budda Baker. The 17-yard touchdown run was the second longest of Cousins' career, and it staked the Vikings to an early lead.
Peterson's leaping end-zone breakup against A.J. Green held the Cardinals to a field goal on their first drive, and the Vikings built a 14-3 lead at the end of a nine-play, 83-yard drive where Cousins found a wide-open Johnny Mundt — the tight end who'd signed a modest two-year deal this offseason — for his first career touchdown. Reagor's motion occupied the Cardinals defense's attention and created an easy release for Mundt.
Murray came back before halftime, though, with a pair of completions to DeAndre Hopkins against Cameron Dantzler and a third-down throw to the back of the end zone that Hopkins hauled in with a dazzling one-handed catch behind solid coverage from Harrison Smith. The Cardinals blocked Joseph's 56-yard field-goal attempt before halftime, making it 14-10 Vikings through two quarters.
After Arizona took a 17-14 lead with an 8-yard Murray touchdown toss to Zach Ertz in the third quarter, Cousins directed a TD drive that featured an improbable 29-yard one-handed grab by Jefferson in tight coverage against Antonio Hamilton.
"When I let that ball go, I'm thinking to myself, 'Is this the right decision to give him this chance?' If it ends up being a punt, you're like, 'I should have progressed. What am I doing?'" said Cousins, who finished 24 of 36 for 232 yards and two TD passes. "One of the traits that makes Justin special, when the ball goes up in the air, he plays in such a way where he says, 'That's my football.'"
After a Cardinals penalty meant Murray would start his next drive from the Arizona 9, he threw deep while trying to avoid getting sacked in the end zone for a safety. Harrison Smith picked off the pass, and a few plays later, O'Connell dialed up another motion play from Reagor in the red zone to set up Cook's score.
The Cardinals got to within 28-26 on Rondale Moore's 38-yard TD catch and run and Matt Prater's 34-yard field goal after Cousins' fumble on a strip sack at the Minnesota 30. But Cousins hit K.J. Osborn on an out route for a 5-yard TD pass with 8:36 left after Troy Dye recovered a muffed punt at the Arizona 25. The Cardinals would not score again.
"I do feel like these guys believe in each other, they believe in what we're doing, and ultimately they believe we're one play away from being where we want to be," O'Connell said. "That's a proud feeling for a coach."