INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Ten weeks into the season, the Minnesota Vikings produced their first signature victory. A handwriting expert would have identified the signature as Mike Zimmer’s.
Needing a victory to avoid falling to 3-6 with the Packers looming, the Vikings played their most complete game of the season against a theoretically quality opponent, defeating the Chargers at SoFi Stadium 27-20 on Sunday.
If the Vikings make the playoffs, this will have been the game that opened the door, preventing a long losing streak and elevating them over the dregs of the NFC.
While a one-game winning streak can’t mask the Vikings’ problems, not while they remain under .500, they finally played the way they were built to play against a team capable of putting up a fight.
The Vikings defense? Missing their best safety, corner, pass-rusher and run-stopper, they restrained the Chargers’ big-play skill-position players, holding quarterback Justin Herbert under 200 yards passing and not allowing their Big Three of Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams and Keenan Allen to produce a play of more than 26 yards.
Vikings star receiver Justin “Jet” Jefferson? No longer grounded, as a midweek pep talk from Zimmer to Jefferson and quarterback Kirk Cousins preceded the kind of what-the-heck long passes necessary to take advantage of Jefferson’s big-play ability.
Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks? He was the best player on the field in the first half, producing a sack on the first defensive possession and diving in front of Allen for an interception in the second quarter. “I consider myself one of the best linebackers in the league,” he said, and this was no time to argue.
Zimmer? Whether it was self-promotion or fact, Zimmer said he pushed the offense to be more aggressive this week, and a week after Cousins looked like he had eyes only for tight end Tyler Conklin, Cousins threw to Jefferson 11 times, for nine receptions and 143 yards.
Embattled offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak? Zimmer said that before the last drive of the game, he told Kubiak, “Be aggressive, let’s go score,” and the Vikings did the next best thing, running out the clock with Dalvin Cook taking a handoff on fourth-and-2 and breaking a tackle before diving and stretching for the first down.
Asked about Cook in the wake of domestic assault allegations, Zimmer said, “I love the heart that he brings. He is one of my favorite players of all time.”
The Vikings’ previous victories came against the worst Seahawks team of Russell Wilson’s career, the winless Lions and a Panthers team collapsing to the point where they needed to bring Cam Newton out of retirement.
This victory, unlike those, required no apologies or shrugs.
This was a victory in which the Vikings at least momentarily addressed a number of shortcomings.
Cousins didn’t settle for check-down passes, instead capitalizing on the talent of his top receivers. Thielen caught five passes for 65 yards, including an 18-yard catch over the middle on third-and-20 that set up Cook’s game-clinching run.
Two of Conklin’s three catches produced touchdowns. Cousins threw completions to eight different receivers. The special teams produced, with Dede Westbrook breaking a 45-yard punt return and Greg Joseph converting all of his kicks.
Perhaps most impressive, a Vikings defense forced to play 98 snaps in an overtime loss at Baltimore the previous Sunday stood up to the Chargers’ talented offense, thanks to Kendricks’ versatility and example.
“Like I told the team, it takes a lot of courage to fight through adversity when everybody’s shooting arrows at you,” Zimmer said.
The aim of those arrows was true.
The defense had failed to stop Cooper Rush or slow Lamar Jackson the previous two weeks.
The offense had underachieved while failing to maximize its skill-position talent.
Zimmer had botched in-game decisions and clock management.
Sunday, Zimmer outcoached his promising counterpart, Brandon Staley, and sounded the right notes for a teetering team.
Thanks to the mediocre middle class of the NFC, the right coaching nudges might be all the Vikings need to make the playoffs, as modest an accomplishment as that may be.