Justin Jefferson deserves every bit of the extra eyeballs that defenses glue to him on a weekly basis, but it still was surprising to see a unit coached by Bill Belichick lose track of Adam Thielen's whereabouts while in the red zone during the fourth quarter of a tie game.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Jefferson's rookie year, only three players have caught more red-zone touchdown passes than Thielen's 23. Travis Kelce, a future Hall of Fame tight end, has 28. Davante Adams, a first-team All-Pro the past two years, has 27. And Cooper Kupp, last year's NFL Offensive Player of the Year as only the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to win receiving's Triple Crown, has 24.
Of those four players, Thielen needed the fewest red-zone targets by far (46) to reach his total. Adams needed 72, while Kupp needed 69 and Kelce 61. Meanwhile, Thielen's former teammate, Stefon Diggs, has 21 red-zone scores in 69 targets since he landed in Buffalo in 2020.
And yet Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell knew heading into Thursday night's game that eventually Thielen would become wide open in the end zone. He knew Belichick's defense would give Kirk Cousins the perfect look. All it required was being patient and waiting long enough for Jefferson's greatness to draw more attention and manpower than Thielen's very goodness.
Against a single-high safety look, the Vikings ran a crisscross with Jefferson running left to right and Thielen running right to left from the other side. The Patriots' eyeballs and that one deep safety followed Jefferson. Then the football found Thielen for the go-ahead-and-stay-ahead 15-yard touchdown in a 33-26 game.
It looked way too easy for a guy of Thielen's very goodness. Of course, Jefferson's greatness appears to have no ceiling within sight.
Once the game ended, Thielen's humility allowed him to effortlessly go on and on about Jefferson's rightful spot as the best receiver in the league.
"Consistency is what sets him apart from everyone else," Thielen said. "There are guys in this league that can make big plays. Go out there and have 100-yard games. But his consistency, to have big game after big game after big game when everybody is trying to stop him at what he does … They have eyes on him wherever he is and when he continues to have that consistency that's what sets him above everyone else and makes him the best in the game."
Those extra eyes on Jefferson also leaves plenty on the bone for the league's best No. 2 receiver. Jefferson caught the night's first touchdown pass, a 6-yarder that gave him a third red-zone TD reception this year and a 13th in his three-year career. Thielen simply plugged along catching nine balls for 61 yards (6.8) on 10 targets while Jefferson turned his nine catches into 139 yards (15.4) on 11 targets.
Jefferson is the talk of the league with 81 catches for 1,232 yards and five touchdowns. Thielen checks in at a mere-mortal 54 catches for 553 yards and three touchdowns, all three of them in the red zone.
But get this …
- Thielen's 54 catches are not just more than any other No. 2 receiver. They would lead 22 of the league's 32 teams, including nine of the 14 teams currently in position to make the playoffs.
- His 553 yards would lead 12 teams while his touchdown catches would lead 10 teams.
- It's safe to assume a certain four-time league MVP over in Green Bay wishes the Vikings had blown up their 2021 roster after back-to-back losing seasons rather than execute a "competitive rebuild" that's become everything they promised so far. The former very well could have sent Thielen packing to Green Bay to help lessen the sting of losing Adams. Instead, Aaron Rodgers' patchwork group of misfits have team highs of only 41 catches and 529 yards in a 4-7 season that ranks among the league's biggest disappointments.