The Vikings were leading Philadelphia 17-3 on Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field when the Eagles drove to Minnesota’s 6-yard line to open the third quarter.
But any hope of Philadelphia making it a one score game ended when running back Jay Ajayi fumbled the ball away to give the Vikings the ball at their own 5. Nonetheless, a quick stop by the Eagles could have resulted in another shot at excellent field position for the home team.
The opportunity for that to happen quickly disappeared.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, working from the shotgun, dropped back into his own end zone and, with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in his face, let fly with a pass down the right sideline. Wide receiver Adam Thielen caught the ball in stride at the Minnesota 33-yard line after beating Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby.
Thielen was only getting started.
He cut toward the middle of the field and put a spin move on safety Avonte Maddox at the Philadelphia 35-yard line before being brought down by corner Jalen Mills at the 27.
It was a remarkable throw by Cousins and an impressive bit of maneuvering by Thielen that resulted in a 68-yard gain. On the following play, Cousins completed a pass to Stefon Diggs for 25 yards to the Eagles 2. The drive would end with a 22-yard field goal from Dan Bailey that gave the Vikings a 17-point lead in a 23-21 victory.
Five games into a season in which the Vikings are 2-2-1, the types of plays provided by the Cousins-Thielen and Cousins-Diggs combinations have become the norm.
If a Cousins pass is thrown in the vicinity of either, the odds are good they are going to catch it. On Sunday, Diggs caught 10 of the 11 balls thrown his way for 91 yards and Thielen caught seven of 10 passes directed toward him for 116 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone late in the first half.
There also was this nugget from ESPN Stats & Info: Cousins has completed 70 percent of his passes to the two receivers this season accounting for 991 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Sunday marked Thielen’s fifth consecutive 100-yard receiving game, making him the third player in NFL history with 100 receiving yards in each of his team’s first five games of the season but the first since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. The others, according to Elias Sports Bureau, were Charley Hennigan of the 1961 Oilers and Bob Boyd of the 1954 Rams.
“I’m not really thinking about it,” Thielen said of the record. “I’m just worried about our record and obviously onto the next game now. I don’t even know who we play.”
That would be Arizona next Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium and you better believe the Cardinals know exactly what they’ll be facing when it comes to Cousins, Diggs and Thielen. Minnesota continues to struggle to run the ball — the Vikings had only 77 yards on 23 carries on Sunday — but Cousins is showing he can make throws that his predecessor, Case Keenum, simply couldn’t and Thielen and Diggs are the beneficiaries of many of those throws.
“I just go where my reads take me,” Cousins said after completing 30 of 37 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown. “I think it goes back to Coach Flip (offensive coordinator John DeFilippo) being aggressive, giving us opportunities.”
Cousins pointed to DeFilippo’s play call that resulted in his 68-yard pass to Thielen.
“He called a double-move the very first play of a drive backed up,” Cousins said. “That’s an aggressive play call. That’s a guy who trusts the receiver to win, trusts the team to execute the play and then Adam basically flips the field for us, puts us down in the strike zone from there. As long as Coach Flip keeps giving us opportunities and the coverage dictates that I go to Adam, he’s going to get the football. I think our offense is at it’s best when 14 (Diggs) and 19 (Thielen) are touching the ball and being able to make explosive plays for us.”
It should come as no surprise that Cousins, Diggs and Thielen have formed a mutual admiration society in which they play a game of hot potato when it comes to taking credit for the success of the passing game.
“Stef said to me at the end, when I had a couple of thoughts for him, ‘Stay on me, I’m a young player and I need you to keep telling me how to play and what to do,'” Cousins said. “(This is) a really good locker room because the best players have a humility about them where they don’t act like they have all the answers. They go to work and say, ‘teach me, help me, I want to be great.’ That’s fun to work with and it’s fun to coach and fun to be a part of.”
As for Thielen, he is more than happy to deflect the credit toward Cousins.
“Honestly, I think it’s a lot on him,” Thielen said. “He’s the guy who is finding us when we’re open. … You look at one of the first plays of the game and he’s getting hit and he just throws it out there and let’s me go run to it and (I) made a play. All day he just continues to sit back there and trusts us to get open. A lot of times he probably can’t even see us. But he just trusts us as receivers to get open because that’s our job. He throws it and let’s us really just go out there and make a play.”
Cousins, signed to a three-year, $84 million contract in March, has passed for 1,688 yards with 11 touchdowns, two interceptions and possesses a 105.1 passer rating through five games. That would be his career high. He also has completed 71.2 percent of his passes, hitting on 161 of 226 throws, which also would set a personal high for completion percentage. The only real troublesome stat for Cousins thus far is he has lost four of five fumbles but that wasn’t an issue against the Eagles.
Thielen has an NFL-leading 47 receptions for 589 yards and three touchdowns — his yardage total is 5 yards behind Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins for the league lead — and Diggs has 37 catches for 402 yards and three touchdowns. On Sunday, Diggs also finished as the Vikings’ second-leading rusher with 25 yards on two carries, and Thielen contributed by recovering the Eagles’ onside kick that enabled the Vikings to run out the clock and end a two-game losing streak.
None of that was good enough for Thielen. “I’ve got a lot of work to do because even when you have good stats it doesn’t mean you’re playing well,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I could do a lot better.”
The Eagles, for one, likely would disagree.