The Morning After: Yes, these Minnesota Vikings can win it all
Everything Kevin O'Connell has been dreaming of came to life in an improbable 33-30 comeback win. The game of the season (decade?) was no coincidence. Now, anything is possible for these Vikings.
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The lazy impulse is to chalk an outlandish finish like this up as pure luck.
A surreal fourth-and-18 catch. A fumbled snap. A red-zone interception gift-wrapped with love and a bow on top from Josh Allen. The Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings engaged in an all-time, mind-bending finish. Ten times over this game felt over. And yet, the moments that lifted the Minnesota Vikings to a preposterous 33-30 win at Highmark Stadium did not materialize out of thin air.
The team’s resident alien — wide receiver Justin Jefferson — put it best.
At the podium, Jefferson first tried to explain his unexplainable catch. He stumbled over his words. Said something about all the work strengthening his fingers paying off. He accurately described this game as a “movie” that didn’t feel real. Then, he nailed it. He used the words so many players around the league are trained to never, ever vocalize.
“I told everybody, ‘This is our season. This means this is our season, for us to win out and go to the Super Bowl,’” Jefferson said. “We just have to keep working, take on week by week, go in there and fix our mistakes and get ready for the Cowboys.”
He is 100 percent correct.
These Vikings proved they’re capable of winning the whole damn thing.
Throughout Jefferson’s 23 years visiting our planet, this feeling of destiny has too often flipped to dismay and depression in the Twin Cities. But it’s real in 2022. This sense of confidence is exactly what Kevin O’Connell dreamt of when the Vikings made him their 10th head coach on Feb. 16, 2022. The Vikings were a team damaged in body and spirit by the previous head coach. Sure, he was plucked from the Sean McVay tree but the X’s and O’s could wait. Before O’Connell even entered the lab to build an offense, he valued the psychology of this team. He rewired the team’s mentality.
Players who absolutely hated going to work in the morning suddenly couldn’t wait for that alarm to go off.
A crucial step practically every new coach talks about but never puts into action.
Far too many men patrolling the sideline are robots coaching robots. They treat the 11 players on the field as cogs in a machine. Then, there’s this new wave of coaches. The coaches who humanize the game are winning a lot of games this season: Brian Daboll and Robert Saleh in New Jersey, Mike McDaniel in South Florida, Nick Sirianni in Philly and, of course, O’Connell.
No, there is not a handy-dandy metric available to support Jefferson’s declaration. These Vikings are not built for modern analysis. It’s so funny to hear the best pundits and writers in the business try to explain the instant success of this organization. Numbers are spit into various calculations — DVOA and such — and that final answer scribbled at the end of the equation is… average. Blah. The Vikings are Kirk Cousins and Kirk Cousins is the Vikings. Certainly not elite. A good, not great team piloted by a good, not great quarterback. Everyone keeps waiting for these Vikings to crash back to reality because that’s how it always played out under Mike Zimmer and that’s the story arc of Cousins’ entire career.
He’s a stick of Juicy Fruit gum.
And these new Vikings inexplicably decided to run it back in 2022?!
Why, yes. Yes, they did.
O’Connell understood that football is a totally different animal than any other sport. Baseball is all numbers. Billy Beane moneyballed the sport forever. Even basketball tectonically shifts with data. Stephen Curry and the 3-point shot took this sport a completely new direction. The hoops we grew up on with Ewing and Shaq and Olajuwon and Mourning posting up on the block no longer exists. It’s true that football evolves. In “Blood and Guts,” Tony Gonzalez even uses this exact NBA analogy while reliving those nightmarish years with Mike Mularkey in Atlanta. The offensive coordinator treated him like an antiquated post-up center and the two soon clashed in spectacular fashion.
Yet Gonzalez would also attest that the core of this sport remains the same because this sport — with all of its inherent violence and all of its unique mental stressors — is unlike any profession in America.
And that’s what stood out most in my conversation with O’Connell last summer. He gets this. He was a vagabond quarterback himself dumped by NFL teams the same amount of times he actually threw a football in a live game: Six. O’Connell knows what it’s like to repeatedly uproot your life. “Failing forward,” he called it. So, for months, the message out of Minneapolis was the same: Culture, culture, culture. However, that overused word always meant something here. The more you dug into where this franchise was under Zimmer and where it’d go under O’Connell, the more it became crystal clear that they’d soon win the games they discovered ways to lose for years.
Minnesota is 7-0 in one-score games this season. It’s been 13 years since a team won seven such games — and those ‘09 Colts reached the Super Bowl. There are only four quarterbacks in NFL history who’ve led five fourth-quarter drives in his team’s first nine games: Norm Van Brocklin (Eagles, 1960), Jim Plunkett (Raiders, 1982), Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2016) and, now, Kirk Cousins.
The Vikings have built a team that creates its own luck by seizing on your miscues. No longer are these robots terrified of making a mistake. Starting corner Cameron Dantzler explained this dynamic under Zimmer. Last season, the Vikings lost eight games by a touchdown or less, and the No. 1 reason? Guys were afraid to make plays in pressure-packed moments. One split-second of hesitation can be paralyzing.
Sean McDermott’s Bills gave O’Connell’s Vikings the slightest crevices, the most minuscule slivers of a chance… and the Vikings made them pay.
When they were down 27-10, they believed. They kept playing hard. Jefferson, the game’s best receiver, had one of the best blocks you’ll see out of any player at any position. He sealed and pancaked safety Damar Hamlin to spring Dalvin Cook loose 81 yards to the house. Momentum shifted. Just like that.
When Cam Lewis failed to knock the ball down on fourth and 18, Jefferson pulled off a miracle. He extended his arm and gripped the ball away from Lewis with one hand. It’s no hyperbole to label this one of the three greatest contested catches in league history.
Five plays failed at the goal line — including a dropped Cook TD on an offside penalty — and the Vikings refused to quit. When the Bills and Vikings reconvened at the 1-yard line, Allen tried to get a quick five yards on a hard count and the defensive line showed phenomenal discipline in not jumping. Consider how bloodthirsty they all must’ve been in that millisecond. Allen fumbled the snap. Ex-Bill Harrison Phillips blasted headfirst into center Mitch Morse to drive the pile backward. Linebacker Eric Kendricks pounced on the loose ball for a touchdown.
And when the Bills were 20 yards from an overtime win, this Vikings secondary made the plays of the season. Out was Dantzler (injured reserve). Out was Dantzler’s replacement, the rookie Akayleb Evans (concussion). The Vikings were down to a fella by the name of Duke Shelley at corner and Shelley — a 5-foot-9, 176-pounder waived by the Chicago Bears on the eve of this season, a player who hadn’t even played a down this season — made the play Lewis could not.
Mano a mano with 6-foot-4 tight end Dawson Knox, he jarred the ball loose.
The next snap, Patrick Peterson picked off Allen’s bizarre pass. The longtime veteran said afterward that the Vikings knew Allen trusted his arm inside the 20. (“That’s his track record,” he said. “The proof is in the pudding.”)
There were countless other moments. Let’s not forget about Cousins — a QB who took some vicious shots, a QB who’s notoriously immobile — turning upfield for 15 yards to set up the score that sliced Buffalo’s lead to 27-23. Cousins, the game’s most mockable and memeable quarterback, drastically outplayed Allen, the quarterback atop everybody’s MVP leaderboard the first half of the season.
As innovative as O’Connell is with offensive scheme, he’s also smart enough to get the hell out of the way when you possess a Justin Jefferson. Too many coaches fail to realize this. Think back to last year’s Super Bowl. It took until the last drive for McVay to realize that it didn’t matter what Cincinnati was doing defensively — the Rams needed to force-feed the ball to Cooper Kupp.
Go ahead and bracket Jefferson with a safety. The Vikings do not care. Jefferson officially entered rarefied Randy Moss air with 10 receptions for 193 yards.
In tight end T.J Hockenson, the Vikings also have a dangerous second option.
Everything O’Connell preached all spring, all summer came to life in Orchard Park and these Vikings are indisputable Super Bowl contenders. The head man’s No. 1 goal was to build a team that’d respond in the face of adversity. He said back on that summer day that something was bound to go haywire. He knew a game like this was coming and he knew his No. 1 objective was to build a monster that’d respond. Before ludicrous athletic plays can even happen, he needed a mentally tough group that’d play fast and free for each other.
Of course, right about now, the Bills fans reading this story would kindly point out that it takes two to tango…
What happened to Josh Allen?
This is also the sort of loss that dusts off so many memories of The Drought. Over the course of 17 playoff-less seasons, 2000 through 2016, the Bills became numb to the mindboggling finish.
Which hangover hurt most in the AM?
Perhaps it was the Dallas Cowboys’ win at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2007. Playing at home on Monday Night Football for the first time since ’94, Buffalo turned Tony Romo over six times yet still lost, 25-24. The undefeated Cowboys scored 10 points the game’s final 20 seconds. Dallas coach Wade Phillips said afterward he had never seen a game like this in his 31 years of coaching. Possibly it was New England’s 25-24 win over the Bills. With 5:32 to go, Buffalo led 24-13. Tom Brady hit Ben Watson for a touchdown and then — infamously — Leodis McKelvin fumbled the ensuing kickoff. A minute later, Brady hit Watson again for a score.
Losing to the Vikings in this fashion, however, feels worse. Far worse. And the reason, of course, is the fact that the Bills entered the 2022 season as Super Bowl favorites. Josh Allen is no Trent Edwards, no JP Losman, no EJ Manuel. Allen is a weapon the sport has never seen. “The most physically gifted player,” his private coach Jordan Palmer said, “to ever play the position.”
And Allen quite literally gave this game away.
We can certainly assign a healthy amount of blame to the head coach. Sean McDermott has developed quite a knack for losing close games and if Bill Belichick is the king of eliminating the opposition’s best player, well, McDermott was the polar opposite on Sunday. He had zero answers for Jefferson. Yet, it’s also true the defense is dealing with injuries.
Other players had gaffes. The drive before Jefferson’s heroics, Stefon Diggs most certainly was not “Him.” On third and 15 — with a chance to close this game out — Diggs had an Allen pass bounce directly off his chest.
This L is on the team’s best player. Josh Allen’s three turnovers killed the Bills: the fourth-and-2 pick from the Minnesota 7 with his team up 10, the goal-line fumble, the game-ending pick. He’s been hurting the Bills for a good 2 ½ games now. Something is wrong and it has nothing to do with an injured elbow. Allen’s problems seem to be whatever’s going on between the ears. In pressure-packed moments, he’s morphing into an anxious, spastic quarterback. There was zero need to force a bad ball to Gabriel Davis in overtime, especially with running back Devin Singletary leaking out with nothing but space all around him.
Too often, Allen is favre’ing he ball into traffic. Why? His play is beyond weird at the moment and the Bills have no shot at delivering on title expectations until Allen overcomes this mental block.
The Bears lost, but who cares? Each week, it’s looking more and more like they’ve found their quarterback of the future in Justin Fields. He was magnificent again, throwing for 167, rushing for 147 and scoring four touchdowns.
Patrick Mahomes (26 of 35 for 331 yards, four touchdowns) and Tua Tagovailoa (25 of 32 for 285 yards and three touchdowns) leapfrogged Allen in the MVP race. Accuracy in the red zone is not an issue for these two — Tagovailoa’s 14-yard touchdown strike to Trent Sherfield might’ve been the best pass of the week. The placement of this ball? Perfect. (Programming note: I spent last week in South Florida to figure out how Tua took his quantum leap. Story coming Friday for subscribers.)
The Green Bay Packers are now 4-6 with everything still in front of them after spoiling Mike McCarthy’s return to Lambeau Field. They ran the ball 39 times and threw it 20 times to pull off the upset. Who would’ve thunk it? A steady diet of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillion opened up huge, huge 1-on-1 opportunities in the pass game. There aren’t many corners in the NFL who can contend with the speed of second-rounder Christian Watson. We’re critical of Aaron Rodgers in this space, but give the quarterback credit for going back to Watson despite the receiver’s mistakes. Watson’s raw top-speed completely changes the calculus of this passing attack.
Jeff Saturday is 1-0 as an NFL head coach. All criticism levied Jim Irsay’s way is justified — Bill Cowher didn’t mince words during CBS’ pregame show — but what an effort by Saturday’s Colts in a 25-20 win over Las Vegas. All of the drama appeared to galvanize the locker room. Man, they played hard. This game says so much about Josh McDaniels and the 2-7 Raiders. The quarterback (Derek Carr) will likely go next offseason, but the coach should, too. McDaniels has been a disaster. Again.
The 2022 Los Angeles Rams are officially dead. The good news is they plenty of draft picks to… oh. Nevermind. For one championship, I suppose it was worth it but the Rams aren’t going to be good again for a while.
Where do the New Orleans Saints go from here? They look equally cooked at 3-7 with eight players on contracts worth at least $40 million and no direction at quarterback. Dennis Allen might as well hand the ball back to Jameis Winston to close the season. Andy Dalton was brutal in a 20-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s another way to lose to the Steelers, too: Hand the ball to Alvin Kamara eight times.
What a Titans win this was. Right before halftime, Tennessee was being outgained by Denver 208 yards to 53. Yet a defense ravaged by injuries and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, back from his ankle injury, erased a 10-point deficit to win, 17-10. No coach makes an ugly win look quite this beautiful as Mike Vrabel.
For all of the optimism in Dallas, this season may be devolving into another on-brand Dallas season. Mike McCarthy’s club now must travel to Minnesota before hosting the Giants. Hindsight’s 20-20 but we’ve seen too many late-game gaffes not to question everything McCarthy does late in games. In OT, he bypassed a 53-yard field goal attempt. The fourth-down attempt failed and the Packers drove to kick the winner. Dallas’ kick would’ve been in the wind, but Brett Maher is also one of the best in the business. That being said, McCarthy’s flawless headset slam was Gronk-esque.
Isaiah McKenzie Show tonight
We will relive every twist and every turn of the game of the year tonight with Buffalo Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie at Mister’s Bar & Lanes in East Aurora, N.Y. Head on out! We’ll start recording the live show at 6 p.m. (EST), and both of us will be sticking around afterward. Meet McKenzie and — if you’d like — buy yourself a signed copy of “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football.”
It's always one hell of a time.
What a fun time virtually hanging out with everyone inside the Substack app yesterday.
We’ll keep this rollin’ every Sunday. Just add the app to your iPhone, join that week’s thread and have some fun:
ICYMI, Vikings stories past at Go Long…