NEW ORLEANS — Rumors were everywhere this week. The sentiment: If the Minnesota Vikings didn’t win in New Orleans that his time as head coach could be over. Not only did the Vikings silence the talk of his demise, they advanced to the next round in the playoffs in the style that Zimmer has believed in for his entire football life.
The Vikings opened up in the Superdome in just about the worst possible fashion. Receiver Adam Thielen fumbled on an underneath pass, setting up Drew Brees and the Saints offense in Minnesota territory.
Coming into the game, Brees had a 137.0 quarterback rating in his final four regular season contests. He’d overcome a two touchdown deficit on the road against Tennessee and then ran Carolina out of the building. All said and done, the Saints ranked third in the NFL in scoring and appeared to be as dangerous as any offense in the NFL.
But Zimmer’s defense, which was less invincible in 2019 than past years, showed right off the bat that they were here to keep the Zimmer era in Minnesota going. And the players Zimmer has trusted the most came through the biggest.
Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter combined for a sack of Brees to force a field goal, putting up the Saints 3-0. It’s worth wondering how the game could have been different if the Vikings had been deflated from the start.
Let’s take a second to think about what Griffen and Hunter have meant to Zimmer. When the head coach arrived in 2014, Griffen was nothing more than a rotational pass rusher. Over the past six years he’s turned into one of the most dangerous edge rushers in the NFL. Hunter developed from a third-round pick with potential to one of the best players at his position through age 25 in history.
The Vikings knotted the game at 3-3 and both teams exchanged punts before the one Vikings’ defense made its one big mistake. In for Brees for two plays, Taysom Hill launched a 50-yard bomb to set up New Orleans’ first touchdown. At that point it felt like the Saints could start pulling away but the Vikings responded with a long drive that ended with a field goal.
That’s when another of Zimmer’s guys showed up. Anthony Harris, an undrafted safety in 2015, leaped up and intercepted a Brees bomb over the middle. It was his seventh interception since the start of the season. Kirk Cousins and the offense turned it into a touchdown run by Dalvin Cook.
That’s Part B of the Vikings’ remarkable upset in the Bayou: Running the ball.
Since the Vikings picked Cook in the second round, Zimmer has wanted nothing more than to control the game on the ground. After sitting two weeks to get as healthy as possible, Cook was a force of nature, shredding tackles, creating big plays off swing passes and check downs and finishing drives with touchdowns.
Coming out of the half with a 13-10 lead, the Vikings continued to harass Brees. Using Griffen at times over the guard, a place where he’s virtually never been lined up before, they created pressure using just four rushers. It’s rare that you ever see Brees look uncomfortable but he threw balls into the ground on a number of occasions with Griffen in his face.
Brees couldn’t be held down for the entire game, though. To open the fourth quarter he began a Hall of Fame-caliber drive, hitting two passes to Jared Cook for 14 yards each, which set up a perfect pass to Hill in the end zone to bring the Saints within striking distance.
With 6:49 Brees got the ball back after a Vikings drive stalled.
Hill continued to haunt the Vikings and a meltdown seemed imminent. He picked up a third-and-1 and then took off down the sideline to put the Saints in prime position to break Minnesota fans’ hearts.
But a Zimmer Guy was there again. Hunter strip-sacked Brees, keeping the score at three and giving the offense another shot to end it.
Adam Thielen caught a Cousins third down pass for a first down but Cook ran backward and Cousins took a third-down sack that set up a fourth-and-23 punt and a final drive for Brees.
Just the way you would draw it up in the movie version: Zimmer’s defense vs. an all-time great quarterback.
It was what the Vikings hired Zimmer for in 2014.
The Vikings’ defense allowed Brees to dink and dunk but slowed the Saints down enough to set up a 49-yard field goal that tied the game and sent it into overtime.
If you thought this would be a normal game, well, you would have been crazy.
Of all the times that Cousins couldn’t make the big play to win, he came through with back-to-back marvelous passes in overtime, one over the shoulder of Thielen to set up the Vikings at the 2-yard line.
Cousins finished it off with a perfect throw to Kyle Rudolph on third down to beat the Saints 26-20
It was the win Zimmer so desperately needed. It was the win Cousins needed. It was the win Vikings fans needed from their coach and quarterback.
And now they’ll need to do it again in San Francisco.