Vikings control NFC Playoff destiny with 4 games to play

James Robinson #30 of the Jacksonville Jaguars is tackled by Anthony Harris #41 and Todd Davis #40 of the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 06, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images))

Harrison Smith pretty much summed up the feelings of all Minnesota Vikings fans on Monday, talking about the team’s 27-24 overtime win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jacksonville entered the game 1-10 and on a 10-game losing streak. Yet the Jaguars went on scoring drive and got a two-point conversion with 1:08 to play to force overtime at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“It’d be nice to have a few games where it doesn’t always go down to the wire. It does tax you over time, that’s just human nature. That’s reality, but that’s where we are,” Smith said. “We have a bunch of guys that love to play and love to fight, so it is what it is.”

Smith intercepted a Mike Glennon pass in overtime, his fourth of the season, which led to Dan Bailey’s game-winning 23-yard field goal. That’s after Bailey missed a 51-yard try with 18 seconds left in regulation that would’ve put the Vikings in front, and missing two extra points.

They didn’t exactly celebrate in the locker room after, knowing there’s plenty to fix. But the reality for the Vikings is this: Since a 1-5 start, they’ve won five of their past six games and are now .500 on the season at 6-6. They moved into the No. 7 spot in the NFC Playoffs after Arizona’s loss to the L.A. Rams.

The team they face this Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sits one spot in front of the Vikings. Another big opportunity with four games to play.

The other reality for the Vikings is they will likely be in close games the rest of the way. Eight of their 12 games have either finished within one score or come down to the final drive, and they’re 4-4 in those eight.

They had their moments Sunday. The defense, without star linebacker Eric Kendricks, created four turnovers and got a safety. Cameron Dantzler had his best game of the season, with an interception, forced fumble which he also recovered and allowing just one completion on seven targets.

Kirk Cousins threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns. Justin Jefferson had nine catches for 121 yards and a score, and became the first Vikings’ rookie since Randy Moss to get 1,000 receiving yards in his first season in 12 or fewer games.

Cousins also threw an interception for a defensive touchdown to start the third quarter. There was a fumbled exchange with Dalvin Cook on the 1-yard line to start the fourth quarter, and a touchdown could’ve put the game away. The defense also allowed the Jaguars to march down the field and score with the game on the line. There’s still plenty to fix with four games to play.

“We still haven’t put it all the way together yet and if we do that, then I think we have a chance to be pretty good,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Monday.

Nothing ever seems to come easy for the Vikings in a big spot, and that certainly didn’t change Sunday. Smith said he’s certainly not going to think any less of it, even if it didn’t come with style points.

“A win in the NFL is a win in the NFL. It’s hard to get wins week in and week out. When you get a win, you’re definitely not going to be down about it,” Smith said. “But you definitely have to be realistic and understand it’s going to be hard to beat some teams making big mistakes like we have.”

Ezra Cleveland returns from ankle injury

For the first time in two weeks, rookie offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland was back on the field with his offensive line teammates. Cleveland suffered an ankle injury early on Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears, but said adrenaline and a good tape job helped him play through the rest of the game.

He missed the last two games, but was back on the field Sunday. He has experience playing through injury. Cleveland suffered a turf toe injury in the second game of last season at Boise State, and played through it. The Vikings’ offensive line didn’t have its best day, with Cousins getting sacked four times and pressured most of the game, but Cook did run for 120 of the team’s 420 total yards.

“It felt great getting back out there with the guys. It’s been a while since I put shoulder pads on, and it was just fun to be out there again with everyone and grinding out the game,” Cleveland said.

No updates on Eric Kendricks, Jeff Gladney

Mike Zimmer had no injury updates on Eric Kendricks or Jeff Gladney on Monday. Kendricks was limited in practice last week with a calf injury, but didn’t have an injury designation into Sunday’s game. He appeared to aggravate the injury during warm-ups, and was declared out just before kickoff. Gladney played 47 snaps before leaving the game.

Kendricks leads the defense with 107 tackles, and has three interceptions this season.