MINNEAPOLIS - It had already been a long week for the Minnesota Vikings before they had even kicked off against the L.A. Chargers on Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
Six players are on the NFL’s COVID-19 list, one having to be hospitalized Tuesday night due to having difficulty breathing. Five defensive starters unable to play, four due to injury and Harrison Smith in COVID-19 protocols. News came out Tuesday night that Dalvin Cook was facing a lawsuit, alleging he assaulted an ex-girlfriend in a November 2020 incident. He said Wednesday he’s the victim, and his agent says he’s being extorted for money.
The Vikings entered Sunday’s game 3-5, having seven of their eight games end on the final possession. Kirk Cousins threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns to Tyler Conklin. Cook ran 24 times for 94 yards and a score and Justin Jefferson had nine catches for 143 yards as a short-handed defense limited the Chargers to 253 total yards. The Vikings head home with a 27-20 victory, a two-game losing streak over, are 4-5 on the season and back in the NFC Playoff conversation with the Green Bay Packers coming to town next weekend.
"Like I told the team, it takes a lot of courage to fight through adversity when everybody is shooting arrows at you. They came here to work and they fought like crazy all week like they always have. It finally paid off," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said after the win.
Zimmer was tired of the close losses, and tired of playing not to lose. Facing a third-and-20 late in regulation, Cousins hit Adam Thielen for 18 yards. On 4th-and-2, they could go for it and end the game, or try a long field goal. Cook to a pitch to the right side, and dove three yards for a game-sealing first down.
Earlier in the drive, Cousins took a deep shot to Jefferson that connected for 26 yards on 3rd-and-6. Win or lose, Zimmer was going to be aggressive.
"I told Klint (Kubiak) ‘be aggressive here, try to go score.’ 4th-and-2, there’s no way that we’re not going to try to win the game right there. I wanted to end with the ball in our hands," Zimmer said.
The Vikings were in attack mode most of the day on offense, and it worked in their favor. Conklin had three catches for 11 yards, but two of them went for touchdowns. His second score of the day came on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line, a floater that he ran down to give the Vikings a 20-17 lead in the third quarter.
"I think there was just an emphasis on offense wanting to come out and be aggressive. That was a big thing for us this week, being aggressive and staying aggressive," Conklin said.
The Vikings also turned an early turnover into points. Eric Kendricks made a diving interception on Justin Herbert in the second quarter. Cousins finished the ensuing drive hitting Conklin for his first touchdown of the day and a 13-3 lead.
The Chargers answered with 14 straight points, and took their first lead of the game at 17-13 early in the third quarter. Larry Rountree scored from 1-yard out to trim the Vikings’ lead to 13-10 with 1:30 left in the first half. Herbert then hit Austin Ekeler for a short touchdown on the opening drive of the second half.
After a 3-and-out, the Vikings answered with a 9-play, 66-yard drive that ended with Conklin’s 4th-and-goal touchdown and a 20-17 lead. Cook’s touchdown ended a 12-play, 68-yard drive that took more than seven minutes of game time and gave the Vikings a 27-17 lead with 9:29 to play.
Cook, who missed time earlier this season with a bad ankle, put the game away for the Vikings after a week filled with potential off-the-field distractions.
"Dalvin is an extremely resilient, competitive person that is a great team leader. I’m proud of him, I love the way he plays, I love the heart that he brings. He’s one of my favorite players of all time," Zimmer said.
A defense without Smith, Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce and Patrick Peterson limited the Chargers to 253 total yards, just 82 on the ground and got sacks on Herbert from Kendricks and Cam Bynum. Herbert, last year’s NFL Rookie of the Year, finished 20-of-34 for 195 yards and one touchdown.
It was a mostly aggressive approach on offense that won Sunday’s game for the Vikings. Justin Jefferson, after getting just three catches on five targets in a loss at Baltimore, was frustrated. He had a talk with Zimmer during the week, and finished Sunday with nine catches for 143 yards on 11 targets.
"I talked to Justin this week and I told him we were going to get him the ball. I said ‘You’ve got to do something for me, and that’s come out here and practice real hard and do the things you’re supposed to do. We’re going to get you the ball,’" Zimmer said.
The Vikings got the ball to their playmakers, and good things happened. They ran 72 offensive plays and had the ball for more than 36 minutes in the win. But it wasn’t all perfect as the Vikings were 5-of-14 on third down, and had 10 penalties for 118 yards.
It’s the eighth time in nine games the Vikings have had a game come down to one possession. This time, they closed it out themselves.
"I like to win, the players know that I hate to lose. I talked to them this week about how much I hate it," Zimmer said. "How hard we work, how hard we compete, how hard we study during the week of practice and we’ve got to start seeing the benefits of it."
The Vikings return home next weekend to host the NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers.