Four hours before the Vikings’ Thanksgiving night game against the Patriots, Kevin O’Connell walked into the home locker room at US Bank Stadium and was amazed at how many players were already in the building.
The team absorbed its worst loss in Minneapolis four days earlier; Thursday’s game offered the Vikings an opportunity to quickly erase a 37-point loss against the Cowboys. If they felt the game lacked character, the 33-26 victory they produced against the Patriots — all the way — was a return to the form that has them on the brink of the NFC North title.
“It just shows how excited the guys were to get here and show the energy, the excitement and the brotherhood that we have in this locker room,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think that’s what helped us win.”
After Kirk Cousins found Thielen for the go-ahead touchdown at 9:40, the Vikings’ passing game produced the biggest play of the night, stopping the Patriots’ final two drives with sacks by Danielle Hunter and Khyiris Tonga.
The win improves the Vikings’ record to 9-2, giving them a chance to clinch the NFC North at home with a win against the Jets next Sunday and losses to the Packers and Lions.
Cousins, who had an interception in the first half, completed 30 of 37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Thielen’s one came on a play the Vikings tried to call several times; Cousins checked out of the game when the Patriots didn’t play the defense they wanted.
The quarterback got his turn before his headset went off; he heard O’Connell say, “We’ve got the look [we wanted].” Playing with Devin McCourty as their only deep safety, the Patriots followed Justin Jefferson across the field; Thielen went the other way and hauled in a touchdown pass in the back left corner of the end zone to Jalen Mills.
“I was stubborn [with that call]”I just kept finding the look we were looking for,” O’Connell said with a smile. “I wanted to continue to find the look that we were looking for, and like great coaching staffs do, they were able to change some things. Our whole group was ready — a clean pocket. I think Kirk had three or four issues. Even though it’s a pass , you still have to block the man over you and block the edges. I thought that was one of the cleanest pockets of the night. We figured we were going to have one of those guys; Kirk made a great decision at that point and an unbelievable throw.”
The Patriots punted after winning the opening coin toss, giving the Vikings the ball on first down. And for the seventh time in 11 games this season, the Vikings scored on the opening drive.
After Jefferson called for quicker passes Monday to help relieve pressure on Cousins, the Vikings went on a series of short throws, including a quick 7-yard completion on their third play for Jefferson’s first catch of the game. The drive ended with Cousins hitting Jefferson on a transition route for a touchdown, giving the Vikings a 7–0 lead.
The Patriots, who didn’t score an offensive touchdown last week, came back with a quick TD drive engineered by big plays.
Jakobi Meyers’ diving catch gave New England a 24-yard gain on its first play, and the Patriots ran Nelson Agholor from the slot at the Vikings’ 34. Chandon Sullivan handed off to Vikings safety Agholor, and Agholor stretched down the seam between Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum to catch Mac Jones’ pass for a 34-yard touchdown.
Two Vikings possessions later, Cousins threw over the middle to KJ Osborne with New England tackle Daniel Ekuale diving at the quarterback’s ankles 3.25 seconds after the snap. Cousins’ pass went over Osborn’s head and was caught by Jonathan Jones to set up a Patriots field goal.
Cousins stood smiling at the podium after the game and talked about the Vikings’ ninth win of the season. It won’t keep him, he said, from looking back critically at the throws he’s missed.
“That’s just the way I am, man,” he said. “I go back there and think about all the games I need to get better. I probably drive my family crazy when I’m this way, but it’s just the way I’m used to it. I’m kind of obsessed with getting better, so even though things they are good, my mind goes, ‘How can they be better?’ “
But Cousins will also review throws by Jefferson that fell between the Patriots’ double-teams, such as the 37-yarder where Jefferson’s neat over-the-shoulder catch set up a touchdown to TJ Hockenson.
The score put the Vikings up 16-13 late in the first half after kicker Greg Joseph missed his fifth extra point of the season.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, who finished with a career-high 382 yards, drove the Patriots into field goal range before halftime with completions of 22, 16, 14 and 13 yards.
The Patriots continued to punt to start the second half. Jones, who had plenty of time in the pocket, found receivers in space over the middle of the field. On
second and 10 from the Vikings 37, he threw over the middle to tight end Hunter Henry for an out. Henry escaped Bynum’s diving attempt and burst into the end zone to make it 23-16 Patriots.
The Vikings’ answer came in the form of one of several game-changing special teams plays.
Kene Nwangwu intercepted the ensuing kickoff at the Vikings 3, picked up a block down the left sideline and broke into open space. His 97-yard return, the third kick return TD of his career, tied the score at 23.
Jones went behind Duke Shelley on the Patriots’ next drive as he did most of the night and hit DeVante Parker for 41 yards to put the Patriots in position for another touchdown. But after officials ruled Henry scored on a 6-yard pass from Jones, a review determined he had lost the ball as he went to the ground. The Patriots settled for a field goal to make it 26-23.
“I thought we were either going to go for a fourth and inch or it was incomplete,” O’Connell said. “It’s one of those things that could have gone a lot of different ways, but I was very happy it went the way it did.
The Vikings tied the score after Cousins led another drive on a field goal. The defense forced just its second fumble of the night (after forcing Harrison Smith on one of the Vikings’ first drives of the game), and a penalty gave the Vikings new life in what turned out to be a letdown. drive.
Patriots running back Helma Pierre Strong hit Ryan Wright in the leg as he went on his second punt of the night, and the officials flagged Strong for bumping the kicker, giving the Vikings a first down.
Cousins hit Jefferson for 36 yards against double coverage two plays later. Then came the touchdown on the play O’Connell and Cousins had been waiting for all night.
“Kirk did a good job of reading it and just firing it out there,” Thielen said. “It was pretty close to getting a tip, but I’m glad we got it done.
And the Vikings, like so many times this season, managed to keep their season from going off course.