One-Score Magic Returning as Vikings Hang On to Beat Saints

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Much was made last season of the Vikings record-setting 11-0 record in one-score games that fueled the team’s 13-win regular season. That magic ran out in the seven-point loss to the Giants in the wildcard round of the playoffs, and the lack of success continued with losses by three, six, and four points during the Vikings’ 0-3 start this season.

One-Score Magic Returning as Vikings Hang On to Beat Saints

Since then, the Vikings are 5-1 in one-score games, with the only loss by seven points to the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. Perhaps Kevin O’Connell wanted to continue the recent trend of winning close games when he went conservative with the offense in the second half of the team’s 27-19 win over the Saints after the team had jumped out to a 24-3 lead behind the continued excellent play of QB Josh Dobbs and tight end T.J. Hockenson.

magic returning
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It’s never a good idea to sit on a big lead in an NFL game until late in the fourth quarter. O’Connell and the Vikings almost learned that the hard way. The desire to keep the clock moving and force the opponent to use their timeouts late in the game is understandable, but running on the last six offensive snaps (and eight of the last nine snaps) with the Saints expecting run and loading up against it is not a good approach when a safe pass to a back or tight end can pick up a needed first down.

Especially the way Dobbs and Hockenson were ripping the Saints pass defense in the first half when Dobbs had 220 passing yards and 40 yards scrambling with two TDs (one on a terrific 7-yard run and the other on a 28-yard perfect strike to Hockenson with 16 seconds left in the first half).

The Saints came into the game as the 25th-ranked team in pass defense against tight ends, and the Vikings added to their misery with Hockenson lighting them up for a league-record 10 catches, 128 yards, and 1 TD in the first half. But he only added one catch for six yards in the second half as he battled through a rib injury, and the Vikings went conservative against the Saints D that leads the NFL in takeaways with 18 but had none on Sunday.

Dobbs’ second-half numbers were 5 of 12 passing for 48 yards and only four rushing yards. But he didn’t turn the ball over, and after Sunday’s win, he is the first player in league history with 400 passing yards, 100 rushing yards, and no interceptions in his first two games with a team.

O’Connell said afterward that he had faith in his defense to hold the lead, but that strategy won’t work if the Vikings continue on this path towards the playoffs and face better offenses in the postseason, such as the Eagles, 49ers, Cowboys, or Lions (along with their two looming matchups in the final three weeks of the regular season with Detroit).

All’s well that ends well, and the Vikings are now riding the NFL’s longest current winning streak at five games as they head into the Sunday night national spotlight at Denver.

Here are my other reactions to the Vikings-Saints game:

1. Turnover free and now plus 5 over the last five games: there’s little doubt the Vikings’ improved turnover ratio has fueled their rise in the standings. Dobbs has not thrown an interception in his two games as Vikings QB and didn’t have any fumbles lost on Sunday after losing two in Atlanta. Mekhi Blackmon and Byron Murphy came up with two big interceptions of Jameis Winston in the fourth quarter to seal the victory (after Danielle Hunter’s hit knocked Derek Carr out of the game).

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2. Winning with so many starters out is impressive and shows improved depth: it’s well documented that the Vikings are 5-0 without their best player, Justin Jefferson, and 2-0 without Kirk Cousins. They also faced the Saints without No. 3 receiver K.J. Osborn (inactive, concussion), No. 2 back Cam Akers (IR, Achilles), and fine DE Marcus Davenport (ankle) and finished the Saints’ game without leading tackler Jordan Hicks (shin injury), starting RB Alexander Mattison (concussion) and starting corner Akayleb Evans (calf).

It shows the depth is coming through with players such as Ty Chandler (45 rushing yards, first NFL TD on a great wildcat play call by O’Connell), LBs Ivan Pace (calling the defensive signals with Hicks out) and Troy Dye, WRs Brandon Powell (four catches for 35 yards) and Jalen Nailor (16-yard reception) and CB Andrew Booth who previously had been a non-contributor much of his first two seasons.

The big question heading to Denver will be how many of these key injured players will be back this week, starting with Jefferson and Osborn as targets for Dobbs against a last-ranked Broncos defense (27th against the pass). Hicks also is needed as a leader on D who has been more impactful than last season, but it sounds like he will be out at least this coming Sunday. We saw the strong play of Davenport in his three starts this season when he had two sacks and helped in run defense, but he seems to be injury-prone, as was the case in New Orleans last season.

Chandler is the Vikings’ best threat at running back, but Mattison needs to be in there as the power back, splitting time with Chandler. Kene Nwangwu also contributed a nice 8-yard run on a sweep play.

Finally and what could be very important is the availability of QB Jaren Hall (concussion) or Nick Mullens (back) to return as QB 2 this week. Having to play Sean Mannion is a scary thought after his lackluster performances when called upon in recent years.

Did We See a Change
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3. The Vikings third down performance on offense was dramatically different in the two halves: 4 of 6 in the first half and 2 of 9 in the second half when they had 3rd-and-7 or more six times due to the conservative play calling and a costly holding penalty on Brian O’Neill that wiped out a 29-yard TD run by Chandler on 3rd-and-1 with 9:23 left in the game.

4. Under-the-radar Wonnum and Metellus are big-time contributors on defense: Danielle Hunter had another terrific game on Sunday with a sack and 3 QB hits, and he hit a $1 million incentive with his league-leading 11th sack. But D.J. Wonnum got a game ball for his performance, including a sack, four tackles, and several pressures. He now has five sacks, 11 QB hits, and 38 tackles this season, which is good timing as he approaches free agency next March.

I had my doubts about Metellus as a starter when he struggled early this season in coverage in Brian Flores’ three-safety scheme, but Metellus has improved significantly over the past several weeks, and his pressure of Winston on a blitz led to Blackmon’s interception. Metellus added five tackles and has become a force as a blitzer, along with remaining a key special teams player. 

Murphy made the game-clinching interception on a terrible, first-down deep throw by Winston, but as a $9 million per year corner defending a rookie receiver in A.T. Perry, Murphy needed to make a better play to break up the cross-field TD pass from Winston. Murphy was also beaten for a touchdown earlier by Chris Olave on a jump ball that I thought he should’ve broken up, but Olave did make a great play to get his two feet down.

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5. Run D much improved this season: The D allowed only 65 rushing yards by the Saints, and the Vikings have improved tremendously from Week 2 when the Eagles rushed for 259 yards. The Vikings rank 10th in run defense, which is a jump from 20th last season, while the pass defense has improved from No. 31 in 2022 to No. 16, and the overall D has jumped 18 spots from 31st to 13th. Harrison Phillips has been a big part of the better run D, and he had five tackles on Sunday. 

6. Greg Joseph big miss: after a 5 for 5 kicking day in Atlanta, Joseph made 2 of 3 field goals against the Saints, but his miss from 54 yards early in the fourth quarter kept the Saints within two scores. It was good that Ryan Wright had four punts to an excellent returner in Rashid Shaheed that resulted in fair catches, but it was a bit disconcerting to see Wright not punting out of bounds on his last two punts late in the game and giving Shaheed a chance at a big return (Metellus made the play to hold him to a 12-yard return on the final punt with 15 seconds left).

7. Winning the penalty battle: a good stat for the Vikings the past few games having fewer penalties than their opponents. The Saints had nine penalties for 74 yards vs. the Vikings’ five for 35 yards. That’s a tribute to good coaching and disciplined play.

8. Home crowd impact: O’Connell saluted the Vikings home crowd after the game with good reason, as the noise caused two false starts by the Saints on a third and fourth down to help kill drives. The Vikings have won their last two home games after dropping the first three this season.

The Vikings take their impressive 4-1 road record to another tough venue in Denver on Sunday night, but Broncos fans are not happy with the team’s play over the past two seasons, so a good start by the Vikings like in the Saints game could bring out the boo-birds.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. The Houston Texans pulled off the biggest upset on Sunday with their 30-27 win in Cincinnati. C.J. Stroud continued his march to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors with his 356 passing yards, but he also lost two fumbles and threw an interception. He led the Texans on the game-winning drive that ended with a 38-yard field goal by Matt Ammendola. The Texans are now a surprising 5-4 (after finishing  3-13-1 last year) and have a decent shot at a wildcard spot with their favorable remaining schedule.

2. Ammendola’s kick was one of a record five winning field goals as time expired in Week 10, including the Lions’ Riley Patterson, who made a 41-yarder to beat the Chargers in a 41-38 shootout in L.A. Jared Goff threw for 333 yards and two TDs with his main target Amon-Ra St. Brown who had eight receptions for 156 yards and 1 TD.

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The Lions defense had a rocky day, allowing touchdowns on the last five Chargers drives, leading Lions Coach Dan Campbell to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Chargers 26 with 1:47 remaining rather than kick the field goal then and give Justin Herbert (323 passing yards, 4 TDs) a shot at driving to a winning TD.

The 7-2 Lions held their 1 ½ game lead on the surging Vikings with the victory. But the Vikings are now 1 ½ games ahead in the race for the final wild card spot and only ½ game behind the 6-3 Cowboys and Seahawks for the first and second wild cards.

3. The 49ers got Pro Bowlers Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams back and rolled over the Jaguars 34-3 in Jacksonville to stop the Jag’s five-game winning streak and end the Niners’ three-game losing streak. The addition of Chase Young helped the 49ers’ pass rush that sacked Trevor Lawrence five times.

4. The Steelers dropped the Packers to 3-6 with their 23-19 win that ended with an end zone interception of Jordan Love. With the Browns’ comeback from 14 points down with 11 minutes left in Baltimore to win 33-31 on Dustin Hopkins’ 40-yard walk-off field goal, the Ravens are now 7-3, and the Browns and Steelers sit a half-game back at 6-3 while the Bengals who entered the season as the AFC North favorite are in last place at 5-4. It’s a big week coming up in that division, with Cincinnati at Baltimore on Thursday night and Pittsburgh at Cleveland on Sunday.  

5. Last year’s Super Bowl teams—the Eagles and the Chiefs—were on their byes as they gear up for the marquee game of Week 11 when they face each other in Kansas City. 

I’m back with my Vikings-Broncos prediction on Friday as the Vikings take on two long-time rivals in Denver Coach Sean Payton and QB Russell Wilson. The Broncos will be on a short week after their Monday night game in Buffalo.

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