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Zulgad: Dodging defeat: Vikings don’t get style points, but do get important win over Jaguars

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) celebrates after throwing a pass for a touchdown in the third quarter during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Vikings defeated the Jaguars 27-24. (AP Photo/David Berding)

MINNEAPOLIS — The Vikings’ victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday should have been cause for celebration. Dan Bailey’s 23-yard field goal in overtime had given Minnesota a 27-24 win that pulled the once 1-5 team to 6-6 on the season and, by the end of the day, would put it in the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC.

So why was Bailey’s winning kick met with a shrug and sigh of relief from the home team at U.S. Bank Stadium? Let’s allow Vikings coach Mike Zimmer to explain.

“Usually after you win a game, there’s a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ going on in the locker room,” he said. “The last two weeks, it hasn’t been like that because they know they can play way better than what they’re playing. I think right now they feel fortunate to be where we are. But they understand – I know they understand and I’m trying to continue to preach it – that we have to stop doing these things that’s going to cost us games down the road. If we stop doing those things, and we continue to play with the heart and the fight and the things that we have, then we’ve got a chance to play. But the last two weeks, you come in the locker room, and it’s more relieved than it is excited. And that’s probably a good thing because I think they know where they’re at in this world right now.”

Last week, the Vikings held on for a one-point victory over Carolina in which the Panthers scored back-to-back touchdowns on defense early in the third quarter after Minnesota fumbles, and Carolina kicker Joey Slye missed a 54-yard field goal near the end of regulation.

On Sunday, the Vikings again made a plethora of mistakes against a Jaguars team that had lost 10 in a row since beating the Colts in its opener. Jacksonville scored on its opening two possessions to take a 9-0 lead, and increased its advantage to 16-6 on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter when running back Dalvin Cook did not turn around on a Kirk Cousins pass. That enabled Jaguars linebacker Joe Schobert to intercept the ball and return it 43 yards for a touchdown.

A botched exchange between Cousins and Cook at the Jaguars 1-yard line turned what appeared to be a certain touchdown into a turnover early in the fourth quarter. Bailey also missed two extra-point attempts, and a 51-yard field-goal attempt with 18 seconds left in regulation and the score tied.

The fortunate thing for the Vikings is that the Panthers (4-8) and Jacksonville (1-11) are bad teams, capable of making so many miscues of their own that it makes up for your shortcomings. The Vikings, for instance, were able to turn four Jaguars turnovers into 12 points, including Bailey’s winning kick.

Where these Vikings will frustrate you — despite their post-bye week resurgence — is the level of inconsistency they have shown. They opened their just completed three-game homestand with a chance to extend their winning streak to four games, only to lose by three points to a Dallas team that was blown out four days later at home by a mediocre Washington team.

It’s performances like that, and miscues like we saw the past two weeks, that leaves Zimmer, and the fan base, scratching their heads and wondering what to make of this team? There are certainly excuses in this coronavirus-impacted season. Whether that be nose tackle Michael Pierce deciding to opt out, or the loss of star defensive end Danielle Hunter to neck surgery. The Vikings also are playing without linebacker Anthony Barr because of a season-ending injury and on Sunday lost star middle linebacker Eric Kendricks in pregame warmups when he aggravated a calf injury.

But for the shortcomings on defense, there also is firepower on offense. Running back Dalvin Cook, playing with a sore ankle, had a season-high 38 touches and rushed for 120 yards. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had his favorite target, Adam Thielen, back after he missed a game while on the COVID-19 reserve list. Thielen caught eight passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, but the Vikings didn’t really get going until they began to utilize rookie sensation Justin Jefferson in the second half.

Jefferson had two catches for 12 yards in the opening half, but then caught seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in the final two quarters. Jefferson became only the second Vikings rookie to reach 1,000 receiving yards, joining Pro Football Hall of Fame member Randy Moss (1998). The others to reach 1,000 yards in 12 games in their first NFL seasons were Odell Beckham Jr. (2014), Marques Colston (2006) and Anquan Boldin (2003). Jefferson, the 22nd pick in the first round of the draft last April, now has 61 receptions for 1,039 yards and seven touchdowns in 12 games.

Jefferson almost certainly will have to play a key role next Sunday, if the Vikings are going to get only their second win of the season against a team with a winning record. (The only one to date was a Week 8 victory in Green Bay). The Vikings will face the Buccaneers (7-5) in Tampa, Fla. The Bucs entered the season with huge expectations after signing Tom Brady but had lost two in a row and three of four before having a bye on Sunday.

The Vikings, who have the same record as Arizona but currently hold the tie-breaker on the Cardinals for the final playoff berth in the NFC, are only a game back of Tampa Bay. Minnesota will finish the regular season with games against the Bucs, Bears, Saints and Lions. Three of those four will be on the road, where mistakes like the Vikings made against the Panthers and Jaguars could easily cost them games. But if Zimmer’s improving team can limit the miscues, this once rudderless collection could find itself back in the playoffs.

“I think we have an opportunity in these last four games,” he said. “When we were 1-5, it didn’t look like we were going to have many opportunities. We fought to get ourselves back in this position. This team will fight. I do believe that. Obviously there’s a lot of things we have to clean up. … We’re going to have to play better, that’s just the bottom line. We can’t (make mistakes) and continue to win football games. I mean, it’s a credit to their heart right now that they’re winning games (despite) making these types of mistakes, to be honest with you.”