Kevin O’Connell’s second loss as an NFL head coach wasn’t an ordinary defeat: It was the destruction of his Minnesota Vikings.
The 37-year-old knew as he departed U.S. Bank Stadium last Sunday, following that 37-point loss against the Dallas Cowboys, that there were plenty ready to dismiss the Vikings as legitimate NFC contenders, even though they had eight wins and a strong hold on first place in the NFC North.
Many of those same critics expected the New England Patriots would add even more reason to dismiss the Vikings when the teams met on Thanksgiving night.
The only way O’Connell could prove them wrong would be by getting his players to believe they could rebound from the franchise’s worst home loss in 59 years and put together a plan that could beat one of the greatest coaches of all time, Bill Belichick.
That was the same Belichick who drafted O’Connell, a quarterback, with a third-round pick in 2008 and the same Belichick whom no Vikings coach had beaten since Dennis Green did it in 2000. The Patriots had gone 5-0 since then against teams coached by Mike Tice, Brad Childress (twice) and Mike Zimmer (twice).
To make it more challenging O’Connell didn’t have his outstanding left tackle (Christian Darrisaw) and was down to his fourth option at the right cornerback spot (Duke Shelley).
Combine all of these things and it’s even more impressive that the Vikings rallied for a 33-26 victory on Thursday night that featured their sixth fourth quarter comeback of the season.
“I know sometimes I stand up here and talk about things like culture, I talk about our locker room in my opinion being one of the most connected, close-knit groups in the entire National Football League that I’ve been around,” O’Connell said. “I think sometimes people shrug their shoulders, shake their head (and say), ‘Yeah, that’s not going to matter.’ Four days time to turn around after a loss could leave a lot of teams searching. Our guys searched, they wanted to show up back to work, on a short week, prepare. Our coaching staff put together a great plan. They came out here and had a ton of energy.”
As has been the case all season with the Vikings, there will be plenty of things to pick apart when O’Connell and his team watch the film. The defense had a rocky night, giving up 382 yards passing and two touchdowns to Mac Jones. The Patriots finished with 409 yards of total offense facing a defense that had to start Shelley because of injuries to Cam Dantzler, Akayleb Evans and Andrew Booth Jr.
Kirk Cousins, who has often struggled in prime-time games, threw a first quarter interception that the Patriots turned into one of Nick Folk’s four field goals in the game. But Cousins, as he has done so often this season, came through when it mattered most and finished with 30 completions, 299 yards passing and three touchdowns.
That was in large part because Justin Jefferson continues to deliver when it matters the most. Jefferson caught nine of the 11 passes directed his way for 139 yards and a touchdown and made a few catches he had no business making. That’s become the norm for Jefferson as he continues to deliver on his quest to be considered the NFL’s best wide receiver.
Cousins gets the credit for his completions to Jefferson, but the reality is there is no one else on the Vikings, or many other teams, that can do what Jefferson does.
Jefferson’s ability to make the miraculous seem routine is another reason why there seems to be a belief in the Vikings’ locker room that things will work out for them. O’Connell has spent plenty of time since he was hired last offseason talking about culture, but such discussion can’t be dismissed when it’s clear the message has had a major impact.
The loss to Dallas would have caused doubt for many teams. That could have impacted the Vikings in the third quarter when Folk’s 25-yard field goal gave the Patriots a 26-23 lead. The Vikings could have easily started to second-guess themselves when their opening-drive touchdown in the first quarter was followed by a five-play, 75-yard TD drive by the Patriots. Or when New England went 75 yards on eight plays for a touchdown to go ahead 23-16 early in the third quarter.
But O’Connell’s ability to keep his team believing, and executing when it matters most, enabled the Vikings to get right in quick fashion and forget just how wrong things had gone a few days before.
“My goal here is to have our organization ready to put it all together, even when people don’t give us a chance or when adversity hits,” O’Connell said, “that’s when I happen to believe the best parts of our team come out.”
It was hard to argue with that assessment after what the Vikings did Thursday.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com