The Minnesota Vikings’ 33-26 victory over the New England Patriots on Thanksgiving followed the same script as nearly every Viking win this season. Sure, it won’t quiet the valid questions about whether the Vikings can carry this style of play into the NFL playoffs – but it’s happened so often now that it’s become a familiar friend.
The Patriots’ offense looked better than it has in weeks, but that coincided with a rare defensive letdown, giving the Vikings the opening they needed.
The win moves the Vikings to 9-2 and gives them commanding control over the NFC North as they head into the thick of the playoff race – the Bears now mathematically cannot win the division, and the Lions and Packers are close to divisional title elimination.
The Patriots are still mired in a contentions AFC East battle, though the loss takes them two games behind division-leaders Buffalo and 1.5 games behind Miami in the NFL Standings.
The Minnesota Vikings Follow a Known Script
Seeing the Vikings score a touchdown on the opening drive, struggle through the second quarter, give up their lead in the third quarter and spark an incredible fourth-quarter comeback – with some special teams help – is comforting in its predictability, in a way.
It might mean that the Vikings are the world’s best storytellers, following the classic Hero’s Journey, as defined most famously by writer Joseph Campbell, time and again. Somehow, fans know what’s coming, but they’re excited to see it play out again.
Beyond the questions of sustainability is how exciting this Vikings team is — so exciting that the art of storytelling itself conforms to how the Vikings play their games. The Seahawks only play in weird games, the Chargers exist to play within one score in the final two minutes, and the Vikings play, appropriately, epic sagas.
As they head into the home stretch of the playoff race, Minnesota will have to decide whether it will finish the season in tragedy or comedy because the elements are there for both. The long arc of the Vikings’ history gives fans the same tense dramatic irony that Breaking Bad’s audience had whenever Hank found a new clue into Heisenberg’s identity.
But it’s not a one-to-one comparison; viewers knew that Heisenberg was Walter White. Vikings fans can only suspect that they know how the season ends; they can’t truly know with any certainty. And in not knowing, they can have hope that the Vikings will complete the season in a Super Bowl run.
That tension between cynical knowledge and naïve hope characterizes this Vikings team more than any other team in the league – and there are enough signs to justify either reaction.
The Vikings Flawed Offense Dazzled vs. Patriots
Both quarterbacks ended the game with better statistics than their level of play would typically dictate, and Kirk Cousins was lucky to finish the night with just one interception instead of three. On non-screen passes, Cousins averaged 9.69 yards per attempt, which over the course of a season would be the second-highest in the NFL.
His passes were consistently a little off-target, however, and often required receiver adjustment to complete. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have some phenomenal throws sprinkled in – two of the deep throws to Justin Jefferson were absolute beauties, as was the short touchdown – but between those were some worrisome passes that didn’t quite hit their mark.
Cousins himself recognized this inconsistency, saying after the game, “we’re winning so I feel like talking to you guys has been a lot easier this year. But I’m not playing any better. If anything, I’m coming to these press conferences having to work to smile because I’m thinking to myself, ‘man I’ve got to play better.’”
He referenced all three interceptable passes and talked about his issues there, brushing away the 30-for-37 passing performance for 299 yards and three touchdowns – a passer rating of 116.1 – because he’s had many better games, even with worse statistics.
None of that mattered much, as the receivers overperformed their already prodigious talent. Along with some incredible catches that highlighted his toughness, Jefferson set the NFL record for most receiving yards through three seasons in the NFL – and he did it in four fewer games than Randy Moss did in the same uniform 22 years ago.
Now, with six more games on the schedule, Jefferson can build on that record and truly make it his own. He’s already on his way; his 37-yard catch in the second quarter gave him 77 yards for the game, which gave him the record.
He added another 62 yards in the second half to end the game with 139 receiving yards. Along with his 11 passing yards, it turned out to be another 150-yard game from him – at least when it comes to total offense.
Is there anything Justin Jefferson can’t do?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?? pic.twitter.com/xmB6iEAAza
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) November 25, 2022
Passing 100 receiving yards also gave Jefferson momentum on a different record; he just slid past Adam Thielen in the Vikings record book for the most 100-yard games for the franchise. That’s a remarkable feat, given Thielen’s own record for most consecutive 100-yard games to start a season back in 2018.
Thielen and third receiver K.J. Osborn had spectacular moments against the Patriots as well -– and the Vikings needed them to do so, given how much attention Jefferson was seeing throughout the game. Osborn’s lone eight-yard catch was a candidate for catch of the game and saved a potential interception, while Thielen’s touchdown gave the Vikings the lead in the fourth quarter.
Heading into the matchup, it would have been fair to wonder if the passing game was going to take off at all. On the opposite side of the ball, the Vikings were playing against the top defense in the league in points allowed per drive, spearheaded by the NFL’s sack leader.
Protecting the pocket against that pass rush was Blake Brandel, replacing Christian Darrisaw, who, before his concussion, had been one of the best left tackles in the NFL.
Darrisaw’s loss is more than simply losing a talented player and replacing him with a backup and expecting to see worse results –- the entire protection scheme is built around what Darrisaw can do. They split Darrisaw wide of the rest of the offensive line and give him an enormous amount of responsibility while the other four linemen cover for each other.
This gives the Vikings more receiving options in the progression because no one has to chip, and it also cleans up the protection along their weak interior. Detaching Darrisaw also gives Cousins a wider pocket to operate from and improves his pocket mobility even when under pressure.
In order to adapt to these changes, the Vikings played a much quicker passing game; on non-screen, non-play action passes, Cousins got rid of the ball in 2.44 seconds on average, the third-fastest such rate this year. As a result, it was also his third-lowest pressure rate on those passes.
They still had issues with protection, and rookie guard Ed Ingram continued to pose challenges to the integrity of the pocket, but this game demonstrated the excellent game-planning the Vikings continue to engage in every week.
While they have issues with in-game adjustments – hence the disappointing middle two quarters every game – they do enter most games with a solid plan.
The Patriots’ Defense Sputtered vs. the Vikings
Conversely, this meant that the Patriots’ defense couldn’t live up to the reputation they had been building. While they hadn’t been building the hype that the Dallas Cowboys’ defense or Denver Broncos’ defense had been building, they were largely outperforming those teams in metrics like yards per play or points allowed per drive.
But there were always questions about how that defense could hold up against a pass-dominant team with a better-than-average quarterback.
Much of their reputation had come from stopping run-first teams with mediocre quarterbacks at the helm; they held the Browns, Lions, Colts, Steelers, and Jets to 8.6 points per game. Teams with good quarterbacks – or at least quarterbacks actively involved in the run game – averaged 29.5 points a game heading into the contest.
That doesn’t mean their impressive defensive back group composed of three Joneses, Devin McCourty, Kyle Dugger, Myles Bryant, and Jalen Mills, is a bad group -– far from it. But the defense is oriented to stop the run with the hope that the pass rush can mitigate good quarterbacks.
Jonathan Jones had an excellent game despite the final stat line for Justin Jefferson. He played with sticky coverage, presented tight passing windows, and he got his hands on the ball more than once – one time for an interception.
The bulk of New England’s pressures came on slow-developing play-action plays, and though one resulted in a pick, the trade-off was generally worth it to the Vikings. Kirk Cousins had three throws over 20 yards completed on those plays and averaged 10.93 yards per pressured dropback.
Matthew Judon still earned his pressures on the night, finishing with three, but it was a disappointing total given his production thus far, and the matchup he had in a backup left tackle. Judon left US Bank stadium without a sack, marking only the second time all year he couldn’t finish the game without taking the quarterback down at least once.
No Patriot finished the game with more than three pressures, and the team finished with the second-fewest quarterback hits they’ve had in a game all year, with only the Week 8 matchup against the Jets featuring fewer QB hits.
To the credit of their run defense, they did bottle up the Vikings’ running game, and the normally explosive Dalvin Cook finished with 1.9 yards per carry.
Further, the Patriots’ defense didn’t quite give up 33 points; seven Vikings points came from a kickoff return touchdown. While that’s unusual for New England – their last allowed kickoff return touchdown was over a decade ago from C.J. Spiller in September of 2010 – it’s not an indictment of the defense or New England’s ability to stop teams going forward.
Nevertheless, the Patriots might have done well to avoid rotating so many defensive players – they perhaps play more defensive players in sub packages than any team in the league – and remained a pass-first defense, keeping players like Jahlani Tavai, an excellent run defender, off the field in favor of an additional defensive back or better coverage linebackers.
Mac Jones Comes Up Short vs. Vikings
Like Cousins, quarterback Mac Jones had an excellent day as a passer. He threw for 382 yards on 39 passing attempts with two touchdowns for a passer rating of 119.8. Like Cousins, he had some incredible deep shots, especially off of play-action, and he particularly did a great job attacking the weakness of the Vikings’ Cover-2 look whenever they played split safeties.
But he faltered in obvious passing situations; the Patriots were 3-of-10 on third down, and Jones threw for -0.21 expected points per play on third down. They finished 0-for-3 in the red zone, and Jones himself only had a 44 percent success rate on his throws – passes that gained more than zero expected points.
Cousins finished with a success rate of 60 percent and more consistently moved the ball when it mattered. Jones’ production all came from explosive plays or, in some cases, blown coverages. When chunk plays weren’t available, Jones couldn’t find the consistent small gains that characterize the best passers.
There’s certainly something to be said about how the officiating impacted all elements of the game, from missed false starts, blocks in the back, or facemask calls to a questionable-at-best ruling of Hunter Henry’s near-touchdown at the goal line. While both teams found themselves stymied by poor officiating, it certainly seemed like the Patriots received the worst of it.
The Patriots also made more mistakes than one typically sees; from running into the punter to wasting timeouts on defense to staying in-bounds in a hurry-up situation, the Patriots bear the blame for their own share of mental errors.
The blunders from teammates and poor officiating from the refs do explain some of the problems with the Patriots’ offense, but Jones still needed to play with more awareness. He absorbed pressure and took on sacks unnecessarily, and made perhaps the best blocking performance this makeshift offensive line has had go to waste.
Rhamondre Stevenson was nearly unstoppable at times too, so Jones didn’t have to worry too much about runs taking the offense off-schedule.
The game was not proof that Jones can’t play well, and it does provide a good counterargument to the criticism that he can’t throw deep. But also demonstrates that Jones continues to search for consistency in a season where the Patriots have a real shot to make the playoffs and make a run once they get there.
Despite that, it will be easy to call this Jones’ best game of the year. In many ways, it very much is. But it does not contain the promise of his rookie season, and the fact that this is a high mark is more of an indictment of his year than a sign that a corner has turned. In order to keep the playoffs a relevant conversation, they’ll need more from Jones in key moments.
The Vikings may be following Campbell’s monomyth in every single game, but the Patriots have followed a bloated version of it over the past 20 seasons. The Patriots started off as scrappy underdogs capable of winning it through effort and luck in the first few years of Tom Brady’s tenure at quarterback and evolved into the overwhelming dynasty they’ll be better remembered for.
Patriots fans are now seeing the denouement, a headache of a resolution to a tired story that needed to end years earlier. And that seems to be the difference between the two fanbases as they grapple with the implications of this game.
Vikings fans are eating up a repetitive story because it’s still, at its core, new to the franchise. Patriots fans are choking down the ending of a 20-year narrative because they haven’t seen a story end in a long time.