LOS ANGELES – Ten weeks into the season, the Minnesota Vikings (4-5) finally figured out what it’s going to take to stay in the race for the No. 7 seed in the NFC playoffs.
It didn’t come in the form of some grand epiphany that coach Mike Zimmer had during recent back-to-back losses to the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens. The Vikings have long known their path towards the postseason comes by way of the offense being capable of sustaining drives and scoring points. To do that, Minnesota’s best skill players need opportunities to make explosive plays -- something that fell by the wayside in recent weeks.
Zimmer saw the frustration mount in star receiver Justin Jefferson after he was targeted just nine times in the two games prior to Sunday, posting five catches. The coach has rarely called out the Vikings offense for being too conservative, but Zimmer knew keeping the season alive was dependent on Jefferson getting more involved.
So, in his weekly sitdown with quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Vikings coach challenged his quarterback to be more aggressive. He told Cousins to make a concerted effort to get Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook the ball. He threw in some hints about what he felt was holding the offense back and the ways to fix it. He didn’t want to see any more five-yard checkdowns when Minnesota faced a second-and-18. He wanted Cousins to take the type of chances he’d often shied away from -- the crux of why his average pass entering Week 10 traveled 6.8 yards down field, the third shortest mark in the NFL.
“I do think that sometimes he needs to be aggressive with the football, and I thought he was [Sunday], especially in the second half,” Zimmer said. “He’s gotta trust everybody, and if he has to hum a couple in there and they get tipped or something, so be it. That’s why we’re a team.”
That push from the head coach put Cousins in a position to lead Minnesota to a 27-20 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, keeping the Vikings squarely in the hunt for one of the final spots in the playoffs while currently ranked eighth in the NFC standings.
Zimmer’s vote of confidence in Cousins’ ability to target his playmakers resulted in a monster day for Jefferson, who caught nine passes on 11 targets for 143 yards. It was the type of performance the receiver had long been capable of but wasn’t in position to do so consistently. After catching an early 50-yard touchdown in Baltimore, Jefferson became an afterthought. Against the Cowboys, he caught two passes for 21 yards.
“I feel like any receiver would be a little frustrated, just wanting to be a big part of the offense,” Jefferson said. “Wanting to make big plays. I really didn’t get that many opportunities in the last games. This game stressed giving me the ball, giving me the opportunity to go up and make a play. And definitely grateful for that and making those plays.”
Jefferson was the security blanket Cousins needed to reignite a dormant passing attack. The quarterback was 5-of-6 for 114 yards when targeting Jefferson on throws traveling more than 10 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats and Information. When targeting his other receivers on those throws, Cousins was just 1-of-6 for 18 yards.
Cousins went 25-of-37 for 294 yards and threw two short touchdowns to tight end Tyler Conklin. The same two-deep safety looks that made the quarterback shy away from higher-risk throws in previous weeks didn’t deter him against the Chargers. He launched 22% of his passes into tight windows on Sunday, his second highest rate of the season.
Like Jefferson, the catches Thielen (5 receptions, 65 yards) made allowed for Minnesota to keep its foot on the gas until the very end. An 18-yard gain on a third-and-20 ball Thielen caught over the middle of the field put the Vikings offense in position to win the game late in the fourth quarter. Minnesota went 2-for-2 on fourth down with a run by Cook on fourth-and-2 following Thielen’s catch that let the Vikings kneel out the clock.
Being in a close game late in the fourth was familiar territory for Minnesota, but Zimmer wanted to start changing the narrative. Heading into the game, the Vikings led the league in games decided by one score with seven, and they were 2-5 in those games, and 1-2 in overtime.
“When it got in the fourth quarter, I knew we’d been there before a few times, so I was just trying to figure out a way how we’re gonna win the game,” Zimmer said. “I told (offensive coordinator) Klint (Kubiak), ‘Be aggressive here. Try to go score.’”
By following a fairly obvious -- yet often challenging -- concept of letting their best players dictate the outcome of the game, the Vikings find themselves just a half game back of Carolina for the seventh seed, a team they already beat this season.
And unlocking the strength of their offense comes at a perfect time for the Vikings, who next host the division-leading Green Bay Packers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).