CARSON, CALIF. — For a minute there, it looked like it was going to be one of those days.
To open the second quarter, future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers put on a clinic in anticipation and accuracy, hitting receivers all over the field and converting third down after third down on a 10-play, 75-yard drive to put the Chargers up 10-9.
Along the way, Rivers hit Keenan Allen for 19 yards on third-and-7, and then Allen again for 14 on third-and-8 and delivered a beautiful ball to running back Austin Ekeler for a 27-yard wheel route. The drive was capped off on a fade to 6-foot-3 Mike Williams, who jumped over cornerback Mike Hughes for a touchdown.
At that point you would have put your money on a shootout — maybe one that favored the future Hall of Famer.
But the next three Chargers drives would prove the game to be exactly the opposite — partly because of their own wild incompetence but equally because of the Vikings’ pure talent on defense.
Over the past three-and-a-half months we have not seen the type of stingy defense that the Vikings have normally brought to the table under Mike Zimmer especially against the pass but they still have Pro Bowlers and record setters on the defensive side along with some players who have been developing for a few years. All of them showed up and defined Sunday’s win.
After the Vikings took back the lead with a field goal, Rivers felt like his hot streak on third down would continue. He flung a ball up in the air on third-and-17 and Harrison Smith jumped in for his 23rd career interception.
Giving the offense the ball near mid-field gave the Vikings a shot at picking up a two-score lead but instead Kirk Cousins threw an interception on a screen pass, putting the Chargers in a spot to take back the lead with under a minute remaining in the first half.
An LA touchdown would have been huge considering they were set to get the ball back to start the second half. That’s when Danielle Hunter — who is making his case for defensive MVP — slapped the ball out of Rivers’ hands. It was picked up by improving young D-linemen Ifeadi Odenigbo, who used Hunter as a lead blocker to take the ball back 56 yards for a touchdown.
As the Chargers held Corgi Races at halftime, the Vikings were certainly in the locker room preparing for a furious run from Rivers in the second half, as he so often has done this year. But before the winning Corgi was even done celebrating its halftime victory, the Chargers turned the ball over again. This time Shamar Stephen poked it out and Hunter recovered.
The Vikings’ offense desperately needed the help. They failed twice to score touchdowns off two fumbles and a punt block and then lost running back Dalvin Cook to injury.
Again the Vikings proved to be imperfect on defense late in the third quarter when they allowed a 24-yard reception on fourth down. But Odenigbo came through with a sack of Rivers on third down, setting up a failed fourth down attempt to keep the Chargers down by two touchdowns.
Cousins hit Stefon Diggs on a deep ball and Mike Boone scored his first career touchdown on the following drive. And in extremely Chargers fashion, they fumbled one more time to put a beautiful bow on the victory. Eric Kendricks, who absolutely better be in the Pro Bowl this year, capped his excellent day with the strip.
That’s reality now for the Vikings. In order to go deep in the playoffs, they will have to see opportunistic defensive performances and big plays on offense in order to win.
We can’t expect the Vikings to be the team that ranked No. 1 in yards and points in 2017 on defense and just did enough to win on offense. They are now the team that needs their best players to step up in the biggest times on defense . They are now the team that needs to force turnovers and stuff opponents in the red zone. They are now a bend-don’t-break team on defense. And on offense they will have to finish drives better than they did for most of Sunday’s game.
And on Sunday the Vikings proved they can beat a team with many weapons and big numbers entering the game simply on the back of a handful of superstars.