The Vikings took a 20-6 lead into halftime on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, and with the second-half kickoff coming their way, they seemed in position to pull away from the Jets and get their first comfortable victory since Week 1 against the Packers.
They ended the day doing everything they could to contain a frantic Jets rally in a 27-22 win, holding New York to 10 points on four fourth-quarter drives that all reached the red zone. The Jets posted 221 yards in the fourth, and 336 total in the second half, as the game morphed into another one the Vikings would have to pull back from the brink.
The fulcrum on Sunday, as it has been so often this season, was the third quarter.
The Vikings ran 12 plays in the third quarter that netted a total of 10 yards. Kirk Cousins overthrew an open T.J. Hockenson, and an uncharacteristic Justin Jefferson drop cost the Vikings a chance for a big gain two plays later. The offense went three-and-out to start the second half; the Vikings' final two drives of the quarter ended with Jets sacks. The Vikings finished the quarter with minus-14 net passing yards; Cousins' only completion went to Dalvin Cook for no gain.
"The one to T.J. was the most egregious miss," Cousins said. "That was just a miss. Gave it too much. There were a couple [where] my feet were ahead of the play, so I'm hitching and my feet are telling me to release it, but the play hasn't really developed yet."
The quarterback added that he needed to watch the plays again to "make sure that I'm slowing down my drop, if that makes sense, to make sure I'm not ahead of the read or ahead of the play."
The Vikings' offensive splits by quarter this season are striking. They've averaged 5.37 yards per play in the first quarter this season (the 17th-best mark in the league), but they've been the league's 10th-most efficient team in the second quarter (at 5.87 yards per play) while scoring 97 points. And in the fourth quarter, when they've so often needed to be at their best, the Vikings have roared to life for 100 points, second most in the league behind the Browns with 102. They've averaged 4.9 yards per play, the 15th-best mark in the league.
In the third quarter, though, their 4.47 yards per play are the second fewest in the NFL. Cousins hasn't thrown a third-quarter touchdown; he has three third-quarter interceptions this season, and his passer rating is only 58.2.
The Vikings have scored only 34 points in the third quarter this season (their opponents have scored 86). Only the Broncos, Chargers and Steelers have scored fewer.
"I was hoping to get off to a little bit better start there in the third quarter, and then whether it was our second drive there, I did think we had a couple opportunities pass wise," coach Kevin O'Connell said Sunday. "We just couldn't convert those plays."
Sunday's game was another one that left the Vikings talking about their resilience and lamenting the fact they needed so much of it to win. Solving the third-quarter puzzle might give them the chance to breathe a bit easier in the fourth.
"Let's make sure we're calling things that give us the best chance of staying on schedule and sustaining drives," O'Connell said Monday. "It seems like getting that first first down, and then hopefully triggering the tools [where] we can apply pressure to the defense — maybe some no huddle, maybe some different personnel groupings. But it's that first, that first set of downs where we got to have positive plays.
"… I think we've got to continue to improve, just overall. That's everyone, coaches and players, finding out how we can capitalize on getting the possession of the second half. And then I think defensively, [it's] finding ways to get the ball back to us on offense and maybe not making it such a pressure-packed situation to where if we don't have success, we may not see the ball for a few minutes."
TWO PLAYERS WHO STOOD OUT
Harrison Smith: His fifth interception of the season, which helped the safety tie his career high, wasn't his most impressive play of the day. That came on a deep Mike White throw for Garrett Wilson in the fourth quarter, when Smith swooped in to break up the pass and potentially save a touchdown after Wilson had beaten Akayleb Evans on a deep post. Smith nearly picked off White two plays before Camryn Bynum's game-ending interception, and finished with eight tackles.
Patrick Jones II: The Vikings used the second-year linebacker for 20 snaps on Sunday, playing him in place of Za'Darius Smith on some early downs. Jones came up with several big plays on first and second downs. He tackled Zonovan Knight for a 2-yard gain in the first quarter, and combined with Eric Kendricks to stuff Knight for no gain on a first down in the second quarter. Three plays later, Jones got the Vikings' only sack of the day with a good rush around the left side of the Jets' line.
ONE TREND TO WATCH
The Vikings' red-zone running: During the final three years of Mike Zimmer's time as head coach, only one team in the NFL ran the ball in the red zone more frequently than the Vikings. And no running back logged more carries near the goal line than Cook.
Cook ran 146 times inside the opponent's 20-yard line from 2019-21, carrying four more times than the Raiders' Josh Jacobs. Those carries were good for a league-best 446 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns, second in the league behind the Titans' Derrick Henry.
As a team, the Vikings ran 280 times in the red zone during those years, trailing the Colts by only two attempts. They threw only 213 passes, the fifth fewest in the league, but those three Vikings teams finished 10th, sixth and ninth in red-zone scoring percentage.
During Kevin O'Connell's first season as head coach and offensive play caller, the Vikings have taken a markedly different approach in the red zone. They've thrown on 83 of their 126 red-zone plays, with Cousins attempting more passes in the red zone than any passer not named Patrick Mahomes. They've run it only 43 times, and Cook ranks 13th in the league with 27 red-zone attempts.
On Sunday, though, the running back got his first red-zone rushing TD of the year, on a 4-yard run in the second quarter. Alexander Mattison followed with a 14-yard score off a draw play later in the second quarter. Overall, the Vikings ran on three of their six red-zone plays. It's far too small a sample size to suggest a trend, but the running game helped the Vikings go 3-for-3 in the red zone on a day when the Jets went 1-for-6.
"We take pride in being the legs of this football team," Mattison said. "Trying to bring extra energy, bring extra juice and keep that going for this football team is something we put on our plate [Sunday]."