The undrafted free agent linebacker relayed the final defensive call in the Vikings' huddle, then took his place alongside the converted safety as one of four rushers pursuing Jameis Winston as the Saints quarterback heaved a Hail Mary toward U.S. Bank Stadium's west end zone. A group of seven Vikings converged on it; the free agent signee batted it toward the two rookie defensive backs, as the practice squad pickup who'd made the team as a sixth safety victoriously raised his fist.
The quarterback, who'd won his first NFC Offensive Player of the Week award before he'd found a place to live in the Twin Cities, donned a baseball cap as he strode toward midfield for postgame handshakes. The stadium speakers blared Creed's "Higher," the 24-year-old rock song that first entered the Vikings' locker room as an inside joke and then spent five weeks morphing into an anthem.
None of it made sense, from the characters to the soundtrack to the plot, and none of it seemed feasible five weeks ago, when a 1-4 Vikings team put Justin Jefferson on injured reserve because of a strained hamstring. But as the NFL's reigning offensive player of the year congratulated his teammates before quietly slipping out of the home locker room and ceding the stage after the Vikings' 27-19 win over New Orleans, a season that was once headed off course now appeared strangely, undeniably alive.
"I can remember, vividly, standing in front of them the Monday after we [started] 0-3, and I can remember the message," coach Kevin O'Connell said. "All of us together, working to accomplish something special, was one of the greatest opportunities we would have professionally. If you look at it as an opportunity and you have your football team trying to be the best versions of themselves for that greater good, I am of the belief that we can continue to go out and write our own story. And we're holding the pen."
The Vikings are 6-4, the owners of a NFL-best five-game win streak and the NFC's final wild-card spot, after a game they began without several stars and ended without a few more key contributors. Joshua Dobbs, who finally moved out of the team hotel on Friday, ran for a touchdown and threaded a throw between defenders before halftime to tight end T.J. Hockenson, who grimaced through rib and oblique injuries on his way to 128 first-half yards. The two scores capped a 21-point second quarter that began with Dobbs lined up at receiver while running back Ty Chandler scored his first NFL touchdown on a direct snap play the team practiced for the first time this week.
Chandler, who had 14 career carries before Sunday, had 15 in the win, which might have been more decisive had a Brian O'Neill holding penalty not wiped out Chandler's second TD run of the day in the fourth quarter. He was expected to play a bigger role with Cam Akers out for the season because of a torn Achilles; by the end of the day, the Vikings had also lost starting running back Alexander Mattison because of a concussion.
They lost linebacker Jordan Hicks because of a shin injury, leaving rookie Ivan Pace Jr. to run the Vikings' defensive huddle. Cornerback Akayleb Evans' calf injury meant Andrew Booth Jr. and rookie Mekhi Blackmon were on the field at the end of the game. The team's decision to give receiver K.J. Osborn more time to recover from a concussion after a full practice on Friday meant second-year receiver Jalen Nailor would play a larger role in his first game back from a hamstring injury.
The Vikings have won all five games without Jefferson. They've used three starting quarterbacks in as many games after losing Kirk Cousins because of a torn Achilles tendon.
But they've had a plus-six turnover margin the past four games, having played their first turnover-free game of the year on Sunday while Blackmon and Byron Murphy Jr. each intercepted Winston in the fourth quarter to seal the game. The Vikings had only 35 penalty yards on Sunday to the Saints' 74, and they eclipsed 100 rushing yards in back-to-back games for the second time this season, with Dobbs gaining 44 while directing a more eclectic ground game.
A year ago, the Vikings became the first team since 1940 to win 13 games while being outscored for the season, creating the perception they'd divined some fleeting success out of good fortune, bonhomie and Jefferson's brilliance. During their current win streak, they've held opponents under 20 points as many times (four) as they did all of last season.
"When I talk about our team and how we're built from substance, there's some football things in there, too," O'Connell said. "As far as what we've learned, how we need to play, technique and fundamentals of how we carry the football, decisionmaking, timing, accuracy. And then the defense's ability to continue helping us win the turnover battle by making some critical plays, especially in the second half when, you know, we scuffled a few drives there. And that's totally on me."
Fans booed the coach when he quickly sent the punt team on the field after Dobbs was ruled a yard short of a first down in the third quarter, and the Vikings ran on eight of their final nine offensive plays (and gained zero first downs), as O'Connell sought to protect a lead against a Saints team that ranked second in the NFL in takeaways before Sunday.
But Josh Metellus drilled Winston on a third down as the quarterback threw deep for Chris Olave, and Blackmon hauled in the first interception of his career. On the next drive, the quarterback slung one deep into coverage with 1:56 to go, and Murphy collected the pass before sliding to the turf.
"He is going to come into the game and take chances," Murphy said of Winston, who went 13 of 25 with two touchdowns and two interceptions after replacing an injured Derek Carr. "He obviously came into the game throwing the ball. We knew he was trying to get the ball down the field, so we just stayed on our keys and staying locked in and kept playing aggressive."
The Vikings could get Jefferson back in the coming weeks, perhaps as soon as Sunday night in Denver. After the game, the receiver posted on social media, "I can not wait to get on the field with this team again!!!"
When he returns, he will play with a quarterback other than Cousins for only the second game of his career. He will do so in games that carry postseason stakes, for a team that has fashioned an amalgam of more efficient football out of an unlikely collection of players.
"We stick together," left tackle Christian Darrisaw said. "No matter what the situation may be, whoever is on the field at a time, we know we just have to execute and do our job, and good things will happen. Hopefully we get these guys rolling back in in the weeks coming up, but however we have to do it, we'll get it done."