The GM’s View: Thrilling rivalry win over Packers

4 Weeks of Wonder for Justin Jefferson
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

The cardiac Vikings have struck again. The team that makes games decided in the last minute a weekly affair did it again in a thrilling 34-31 win over the Packers that featured great offense and little defense from both teams, especially in the second half.

It’s the biggest win of the season for Minnesota. Sunday’s perfect results for the Vikings—their win combined with the Saints and Panthers losing–put them in the NFC’s No. 6 spot as the second wild card with seven games left in the regular season. The Vikings thrilling win also helped the team stay alive in the NFC North race and now trail the 8-3 Packers by two games in the loss column. The two teams will meet again in Lambeau Field on January 2 (brrr), a Sunday night game unless it’s flexed to an afternoon game.

Minnesota next takes another west coast trip to face the resurgent 49ers who like the Vikings are 5-5 and have won two straight games. It’s another big game with playoff tie-breaker implications.

Here are my takeaways from another thrilling and nerve-racking Sunday watching the Purple:

1.Aggressive formula on offense delivers the win: I asked for double digit targets for Justin Jefferson and he got exactly 10 targets and several 50-50 balls to make big plays which he did frequently (8 receptions, 169 yards, 2 TDs). And there were another 10 targets to boot for Adam Thielen (8 catches, 82 yards, 1 TD and a huge 26 yard catch on a somewhat risky throw by Kirk Cousins to help run out the clock before Greg Joseph’s winning field goal).

It seems the coaching staff and Cousins are now believing and executing what many Vikings observers have been saying all season long–that the Vikings chances for success go up significantly if they stay aggressive in the passing game with their elite receiving corps including Jefferson, Thielen, K.J. Osborn and Tyler Conklin.

And Dalvin Cook obviously must be a force in the run and short passing game as he was in the second half. Cook says that the passing game is opening up the rushing attack and he had a critical 13 yard run to help drain the clock (he wisely did not try to score, saying they did not want Aaron Rodgers to get the ball back).

I didn’t mind Cousins trying to hit Jefferson on the last-drive pass that appeared to be intercepted by Darnell Savage but was overturned by replay. Cousins said he should have thrown the ball higher to give Jefferson a better shot at high-pointing the catch. But it sure looked like Rodgers would get the ball at the Green Bay 37 with two minutes left in a tie game until the replay ruling came down.

2. This game tells me that Klint Kubiak seems to be improving as a play caller and offensive coordinator. He was praised by Zimmer and the Vikings players post-game. The 3rd-and-1 sweep by C.J. Ham was a suspect call (Ham is an excellent inside runner) but I think it’s great that Kubiak is encouraging Cousins to take chances and trust Jefferson and Thielen to make contested catches, even against top defenses such as the Packers who came in ranked No. 3 after shutting out Seattle.

In this thrilling win, I loved the change-up with Jefferson lined up in the backfield that confused the Packers secondary on his 9-yard TD reception in the third quarter. Kubiak’s aggressive approach must continue even in cold weather late-season road games at Chicago and Green Bay if the Vikings are going to become a playoff team and a tough out in postseason.

Zimmer needs to pull some rabbits out of his hat to help his shaky pass defense (such as timely blitzes against QBs other than Rodgers and continuing to use Sheldon Richardson at defensive end where he was able to pressure Rodgers several times). But the good news is he has allowed the offense to become unleashed and his clock management has been excellent in end of game situations the past two weeks. Loved this Zimmer quote on Rodgers: “I figured the best place to win the game was him on the bench.”

3. Fewer penalties on offense a key: Minnesota had no offensive penalties which was a nice change from so many holding calls the past several games. Cousins said “I think the lack of penalties stands out. It makes a big difference for our play caller and for me.” The Vikings finished with 3 penalties for 25 yards while the Packers had 8 for 92 yards including a helmet to helmet hit on Cousins that nullified an interception and led to a touchdown pass from Cousins to Thielen to solidify the thrilling win.

4. Defense not so good: After a solid start with some different wrinkles and good run defense, the Minnesota pass defense was awful with Rodgers throwing for 385 yards and 4 TDs as the Packers scored touchdowns on their last four drives. The late 75 yard TD pass from Rodgers to Marquez Valdes-Scantling was ugly as the Packers picked up the blitz and safety Xavier Woods was stuck in coverage and beaten by the much faster receiver.

The Vikings need a different plan for such blitzes so a corner is in coverage or they need to have the speedier Cam Bynum at safety instead of Woods.

With no Danielle Hunter and a suspect secondary, it’s apparent that the offense will have to carry the team and the defense just try to hang on and make a few stops when facing top offenses including a 49ers offense this week that scored 31 points against the Rams and put 30 on Jacksonville the past two weeks.

5. Another confidence builder for Greg Joseph: after a missed extra point early (his first missed kick after three perfect weeks), Joseph came through with a 51-yard field goal and the clutch 29-yard game-winner.

6. When the Vikings were 3-3 and facing a four week gauntlet of first place teams at the time (Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers and Packers), I thought going 2-2 was critical to stay firmly in the playoff mix and that’s what the Vikings have done (and they could’ve won all four).

The remaining schedule is still challenging but not quite as daunting as the last four weeks, with three games against the struggling Bears and Lions (but I expect these division foes to play the Vikings tough) and a home game with the Steelers who will have to travel on a short week for a Thursday night game.

If Minnesota wins those four games plus gets a victory in San Francisco or at home against the Rams the day after Christmas, that’s 10 wins and most assuredly a playoff spot. The Vikings are battle-tested from so many close games and if the Packers (who are having a rough stretch of injuries) slip, perhaps the division title could be on the line in the rematch with the Packers.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl