INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Ten weeks into the 2021 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings produced their first impressive victory.
Needing a victory to avoid falling to 3-6 with the Packers looming, the Vikings played their most complete game against a theoretically quality opponent,at SoFi Stadium on Sunday.
It was a victory befitting Vikings coach Mike Zimmer: stubborn and old-school, sealed with a power run on fourth-and-2 with a little more than two minutes remaining. Dalvin Cook busting tackles and stretching out the ball may not have been the key play of the game, but it looked awfully emblematic of the Vikings’ effort on Sunday.
This is what the Vikings were built to look like, a team featuring power running, excellent receivers and defensive grit and adaptability. They even shined on special teams, with Dede Westbrook providing a long punt return and Greg Joseph making all of his kicks.
The Vikings’ previous victories came against the worst Seahawks team of Russell Wilson’s career, the winless Lions and a Panthers team collapsing to the point where they needed to re-sign Cam Newton.
This was a victory that required no apologies or shrugs, a victory in which the Vikings at least temporarily addressed a number of shortcomings.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins didn’t settle for check-down passes, pushing the ball deep to Justin Jefferson and being rewarded with first downs and pass-interference penalties.
Jefferson and fellow receiver Adam Thielen produced big plays against a questionable defense.
Tight end Tyler Conklin produced two touchdowns in the red zone.
Perhaps most impressive, a Vikings defense forced to play 98 snaps in an overtime loss at Baltimore the previous Sunday stood up to the Chargers’ talented offense.
Eric Kendricks set the tone. With a sack on the Vikings’ first defensive possession and an interception while covering excellent Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, Kendricks may have been worth 10 points all by himself.
Zimmer deserves criticism for his clock management at the end of the first half, but his defense redeemed him.
That defense is missing five starters from its opening-week lineup, including its best pass-rusher (Danielle Hunter), best player in the secondary (Harrison Smith) and best cornerback (Patrick Peterson).
It was also missing Anthony Barr, a week after his overtime interception should have set the Vikings up for a victory.
This week, Kendricks was the linebacker who made the big plays and set the tone for the Vikings’ biggest victory of the season.
This could be the game that, at the end of the season, the Vikings can point to as the one that put them into the playoffs. They were facing a difficult four-week stretch – against Dallas, Baltimore, the Chargers and Packers – and they salvaged at least one victory while their competitors for the sixth or seventh playoff spot did nothing to distinguish themselves.
You’d have to say Zimmer outcoached the Chargers’ Brandon Staley, whose team was playing at home, had the better record and was healthier.
Perhaps more important for the Vikings, Cousins trusted Jefferson, throwing the ball to him whether he was visibly open or not.
Jefferson delivered with big catches that produced the Vikings’ biggest victory of 2021, to date.
Now the Vikings have some margin for error, and a chance to turn the NFC North into something with a faint resemblance to a race.