Vikings Win Classic Thriller against Bills in Statement Game
Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
Just when we thought this streak of dramatic, comeback, one-score victories was going to end on Sunday in snowy, windy Orchard Park, NY, the Vikings took it to a new level in the NFL’s best regular season game of the season.
Rallying from a 27-10 third-quarter deficit against the consensus AFC Super Bowl favorite, the Vikings beat the Bills 33-30 in overtime to move to 8-1 with their seventh straight come-from-behind win.
It’s difficult to unpack this game with so many huge plays and times when it appeared either team was going to win or lose. I’ll start by saying the last two minutes of regulation and into overtime will stand as a classic and one of the best regular season wins in Vikings franchise history. And we’ve hopefully heard the last of national (and some local) pundits claiming these Vikings aren’t an elite team.
Coach Kevin O’Connell said it well postgame: “We’ve won football games a lot of different ways. We have a confident locker room. It wasn’t always perfect, but we have confidence in the team’s ability to make one more play to keep the game alive and be at our best when it’s required. I love the way they battle, and this is a really big win for us. This is a very difficult place to play and what we earned here today is the final stamp in understanding that we are one of the best teams in this league.”
Here are some key numbers from Sunday: it’s the first time since 1968 — which includes 52 games prior to Sunday — that the Bills have lost a home game that they led by 14 or more points at halftime. At 8-1, the Vikings maintained their 4 ½ game NFC North lead over the Packers, who had their own fourth-quarter rally to beat the Cowboys, the Vikings opponent next Sunday in the first of three straight home games. And after the Eagles Monday night loss to the Commanders, the Vikings are tied with Philly for the NFC’s No. 1 seed (Eagles hold the tie-breaker from their Week 2 win over the Vikings.
Plus, with Seattle’s loss to Tampa Bay, the Vikings increased their lead to 2 ½ games over the Seahawks for the NFC’s No. 2 seed. And how about this stat line: Justin Jefferson — 10 catches, 193 yards, 1 TD with the best catch of the NFL season on 4th-and-18 to keep the Vikings alive at the two-minute warning.
The Vikings had a first-drive TD for the fifth time in their last six games and are now an amazing 7-0 in one-score games this season. They also were plus-two in turnovers to improve to plus eight on the season, second only to the Eagles plus 15.
Here are my other reactions to Sunday’s win over the Bills:
1. J.J. is unreal: this was as good of a performance in a big game by a Vikings receiver as I’ve ever seen, and I was part of that 1998 team with Cris Carter and Randy Moss. I also was at Candlestick Park for Anthony Carter’s 10-catch, 227-yard receiving performance in our 1987 upset win over the 49ers in the NFC playoffs. Jefferson made so many big catches in tight coverage on Sunday, and the 32-yarder on 4th-and-18 was simply incredible with his leaping ability, body control, and strength to pull off this play. O’Connell called it “one of the more remarkable catches I’ve ever seen.”
What a show that was put on by Jefferson and ex-Viking Stefon Diggs (12 catches, 128 yards with a leaping one-handed catch for 25 yards on 3rd-and-15 on the last play of the third quarter, a terrific catch that would soon be out-shined by Jefferson). Diggs said postgame that the Bills may be “blinking” under pressure as Buffalo is now 2-9 in one-score games the past two years.
2. Five plays kept the game alive for the Vikings when things looked bleak. First, Dalvin Cook’s 81-yard late third-quarter TD run got the Vikings back in the game at 27-17. On the following drive, Josh Allen made his first of three big mistakes in throwing an end zone interception to Patrick Peterson on 4th-and-2 from the Vikings 7-yard line. On the ensuing drive, K.J. Osborn had to bull his way to a first down on a 4th-and-2 jet sweep from the Minnesota 43 with 9:02 left in regulation (on the drive where C.J. Ham scored on a deceptive run to pull the Vikings within four points).
Add in Jefferson’s 32-yard catch, or the Bills would’ve had the ball at the Minnesota 27 with less than two minutes remaining. Finally, there was the botched snap at the 1-yard line between Allen and center Mitch Morse that was recovered in the endzone for a TD by Eric Kendricks after Kirk Cousins’ QB sneak on fourth down came up short. Ex-Bill Harrison Phillips deserves credit for submarining Morse to help dislodge the ball and create room for Kendricks to pounce on it.
3. One critique of O’Connell’s play calling: I didn’t like his decision to have Cousins throw (incompletions) on both 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 to turn it over on downs at the Buffalo 28-yard line, which stopped the clock with 1:50 left in the first half. This gave the Bills plenty of time to drive to a TD and the 24-10 halftime lead.
4. Cook showed his toughness again with several key blocks, including helping tackle Blake Brandel by chipping on Von Miller on Jefferson’s 32-yarder and picking up blitzers several times. The Vikings also leaned on Cook and O-line for 26 yards on five carries, including several excellent cutback runs during the overtime drive to the winning field goal.
5. The O-line had a difficult task with a rough Bills front seven on defense, but they did well overall as the offense gained 481 yards and put up 33 points against the NFL’s No. 1 scoring D. Brandel did a good job as he stepped in for Christian Darrisaw who had to leave with a concussion in the second half. Brian O’Neill again showed that he should make the Pro Bowl as he battled Von Miller for most of the game and held him to one sack. Guard Ed Ingram played a bit better this week but still allowed some pressures, and his footwork needs to be addressed as he killed plays by twice stepping on Cousins’ right foot to trip him up.
6. In leading the Vikings to seven straight come-from-behind wins this season, Cousins is eliminating the narrative that he’s not a clutch player: Cousins threw a couple of bad interceptions against the Bills, but he also had 357 passing yards in the cool weather and made so many difficult throws with great accuracy as defenders from the NFL’s top-ranked defense were bearing down on him.
He had the guts and smarts to make the contested throw to Jefferson—the team’s best player–on the 4th-and-18 play. I thought he made a terrific throw to Jefferson on the right sideline for a 24-yard completion on the overtime drive. Another clutch pass was a bullet on 4th-and-5 to T.J. Hockenson to keep the drive alive, leading to Ham’s fourth-quarter TD run. And there was the 13-yard sideline completion to J.J. in overtime that showed Cousins’ arm strength as he was about to be hit hard. This was Cousins’ fifth game-winning drive of the season, a career-high.
7. The defense held the NFL’s No. 1 offense to six points in the second half and OT. There were so many Vikings defenders who made big plays, including stars such as Patrick Peterson with his two red zone picks, and as usual, Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter produced key sacks against the big, strong, and elusive Allen, who ran for 84 yards. Peterson is such a savvy vet, and he put himself in position for the big interceptions. “I think Patrick Peterson is a major reason we’re 8-1,” O’Connell said as he praised Peterson’s playmaking and leadership.
Some lesser-known Vikings also stepped up on D, including backup corner Duke Shelley. He was activated from the practice squad for his first game as a Viking and made a critical pass breakup against Dawson Knox in the end zone on the play before Peterson’s game-ending pick. Backup nose tackle Khyiris Tonga put the heat on Allen when he threw the first redzone pick to Peterson (and Allen needs to make better decisions as he has now thrown four interceptions in losses the past two weeks to the Jets and Vikings and the two redzone picks plus the end zone fumbled snap killed the Bills’ chances to win on Sunday).
8. Yikes. Greg Joseph — quit missing PATs: Yes, he made the game-winning 33-yard field goal on a tough day to kick, but his missed extra point after Ham’s fourth-quarter TD kept the Vikings four points behind. That’s his fourth extra point miss this season (no other kicker has missed more than two PATs). He’s lucky none of these miscues have cost the Vikings a victory — so far. Joseph’s kickoffs also were not as strong as usual, even in the windy conditions. And the Vikings, who have been good most of the year in kick coverage, gave up a long kickoff return (43 yards) to help set up the Bills first TD drive.
9. The officiating was terrible: Jefferson was held so many times and finally drew a critical pass interference call on the overtime drive. I thought the third-quarter holding call on Christian Darrisaw was shaky. Worst of all was the non-review on Gabe Davis’ 20-yard reception on the Bills game-tying drive in the final minute of regulation when it was clear the ball hit the ground as he fell out of bounds. The Bills also had 12 men on the field when Cook was stuffed for a three-yard loss after a Jefferson catch got the Vikings down to the Buffalo 2-yard line in overtime.
O’Connell says he tried to get the officials to stop the game and review the Davis catch, but it’s on the replay official upstairs and the officiating staff at NFL headquarters in New York to stop the game on such a play. I agree with Pats Coach Bill Belichick, who was asked about the Davis catch, and he said coaches should be able to challenge in the final two minutes and overtime on any play as long as they haven’t used up their challenges as opposed to relying on the replay official or the league office to stop play in those situations.
The Vikings now have a tough three-game homestand against winning teams–Dallas, New England, and the Jets. But after three road wins in the last four games, it will be a pleasant change to play in front of loud home crowds who are excited about this Vikings team with the NFL’s best (tied) record.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. Green Bay may have saved their season by rallying from a 14-point deficit to beat the Cowboys 31-28 in OT with Aaron Rodgers throwing three TD passes to the finally healthy second-round pick Christian Watson. The Packers host the Titans this Thursday night before a tough Sunday night game in Philly on Thanksgiving weekend as they try to climb back to .500.
2. Detroit came from behind to beat the Bears 31-30 in Chicago despite Justin Fields continuing to run wild with 147 yards on the ground and two TDs. He’s a Fantasy Football star, but the Bears fell to last place in the division at 3-7.
3. How about the defending Super Bowl champion Rams, who were without Matthew Stafford (concussion), lost Cooper Kupp to an ankle injury, and fell to 3-6 with a home loss to the Cardinals, who won without QB Kyler Murray (hamstring) as 36-year old backup Colt McCoy beat Rams No. 2, John Wolford.
4. Cool scene with an excited crowd at the stadium in Munich, Germany, where the NFL says there were three million ticket requests (for 67,000 seats) to watch Tom Brady and the Bucs beat Seattle to reach 5-5.
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