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Zulgad: Airing it out: Vikings’ new approach allows Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson to lead way

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 21, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) catches a touchdown pass in front of Green Bay Packers cornerback Eric Stokes (21) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time not long ago when Kirk Cousins having the ball with the scored tied late in the fourth quarter of a Vikings-Packers game would have caused a feeling of dread inside U.S. Bank Stadium. The assumption would have been that after a three-and-out, or worse, Aaron Rodgers would get the ball and lead the Packers to the winning touchdown or field goal.

Only that didn’t seem to be the feeling on Sunday afternoon, when Cousins jogged onto the field with 2 minutes, 8 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Packers had tied the score on Rodgers’ 75-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a one-play drive after Cousins’ 23-yard touchdown throw to Justin Jefferson, and Dalvin Cook’s two-point conversion run, had put the Vikings ahead by seven.

Now, Cousins was being asked to do his best Rodgers impersonation. This is where the Vikings play-calling had often gotten conservative, or downright weird, or Cousins had made an inexplicable and eye-rolling decision. But on Sunday, for the second consecutive week, the Vikings no longer felt like a team whose coach barely tolerated his offense, while focusing on defense night and day.

Mike Zimmer has seemed to realize two very important things: 1) Relying on a defense that is just OK is a recipe for termination, no matter how much of a defensive genius you were at one time; 2) Not taking shots to get the ball to Jefferson — even ones that are dangerous — is football malpractice. It also is a good way to alienate the best wide receiver the Vikings have had since a guy named Moss was here. At least the first time.

So after the Packers took a too many men penalty that made it first-and-5 at the Minnesota 30-yard line, Cousins took a deep shot for Jefferson at the Packers 37. Green Bay safety Darnell Savage appeared to intercept the pass and returned it to the Vikings 37 with 2:01 left. The Packers were set to leave Minneapolis with a 9-2 record and the NFC North all but wrapped up; the Vikings were headed for 4-6 with their remaining playoff hopes slipping away.

The play was subject to automatic review because it was a turnover and the replay showed a much-different story than what the eyes had initially seen. Savage had lost possession of the ball as he came down. A month ago, this type of scare probably would have meant the next play was a handoff to Cook and that any play considered risky would have been off the table for offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak.

But Cousins kept throwing the ball. A 6-yard pass to Jefferson, a short pass to Cook that he turned into a 19-yard gain, a no-huddle, shotgun look on which Thielen caught a short but risky pass and turned it into a 26-yard gain and then a 12-yard run by Cook that he took to the Packers 7 before going to the turf in order to not score too quickly.

Cook and the Vikings knew that a touchdown with 1:19 left would have been an invitation for Rodgers to play hero. They’ve seen that act before. “I wanted to score so bad, just to end the game, but I’m not going to give Aaron Rodgers back the football,” Cook said. “I had to get down.”

Cousins took a knee twice to get the clock to 2 seconds and Greg Joseph made a 29-yard field goal as time expired for a 34-31 victory. That puts the Vikings at 5-5 and, immediately after the win, in the sixth playoff spot in the NFC. The Vikings’ season was on life support, and Zimmer’s job in jeopardy, two weeks ago after losses to Dallas and Baltimore.

But that was before Zimmer decided to embrace the idea of letting an explosive offense be the identity of his team.

A week after the offense was turned loose in a 27-20 victory against the Chargers, the unit again was allowed to play a key role. Jefferson caught eight passes for 169 yards on 10 targets and two touchdowns; Thielen had eight receptions for 82 yards on 10 targets and a touchdown; and Cousins threw for 341 yards (24-of-35) with three touchdowns and a 128.4 passer rating. Jefferson had receptions of 43, 56 and 23 yards and also had a big gain thanks to drawing a pass interference call  on a 37-yard penalty in the second quarter.

There were a few questionable series from the Vikings — really, a third-and-1 run from fullback C.J. Ham that went for nothing? — but the fact Minnesota blew a 13-point first-half lead and had to rally from a point down in the fourth quarter wasn’t nearly as disheartening as it could have been.

That’s because the Vikings brain trust appears to have realized what so many others already knew. Jefferson and this offense are the real identity — and only hope — when it comes to this team.