In the fourth game of the NFL’s Super Wild Card weekend, the No. 6 seeded New York Giants traveled to US Bank Stadium to take on the No. 3 seeded Minnesota Vikings. This matchup marked the fourth postseason meeting ever between the franchises, and the third during the Wild Card round.
The 13-4 Vikings won 13 games for the third time in 62 seasons, and something felt different about this year. It seemed like no matter the deficit, Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson and the Vikings were always going to find a way to win. Unfortunately for the Vikings and all of their fans, myself included, they fell to the Giants, 31-24.
The Vikings got off to a great start offensively, putting together a 12 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. On the opening drive, Cousins found Jefferson four different times, including a 6 yard pass near the goal line, which was originally ruled a touchdown, but was reversed after replay showed that he was short of the end zone. On the very next play, Cousins snuck into the end zone to give the Vikings the first score of the night.
As a fan in attendance of this game, the first drive gave me hope that this game could be dominated by Jefferson and the offense. With 4 catches on the first drive things were looking great and I thought that he could potentially break James White and Darren Sproles’ record for receptions in a playoff game at 15.
However, I forgot that the Vikings were playing against future hall-of-famers like Daniel Jones and Isaiah Hodgins, and on the Giants’ opening drive, they ran 5 plays for 75 yards, capped off with a 28 yard rushing touchdown by Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley. My cap is tipped to Barkley for all he has done this season, and I knew he would be a problem. But on two scrambles from Jones he gained 22 yards, and that would be a sign of things to come.
The Vikings had an opportunity to answer back, but on 3rd and 1 from their own 34, Vikings Head Coach and play caller Kevin O’Connell got too cute. In this situation, you usually would try to pick up the first down with running back Dalvin Cook on the ground, or by having Cousins fire a quick one to Justin Jefferson, right? Wrong. This time, Jefferson took an end around and fired a dart…to Cousins who was 5 yards from the line to gain. Needless to say, he did not pick up the first down, and the Vikings punted.
On the first play of their second drive, Jones connected with wide receiver Darius Slayton over the middle, and was able to pick up 47 yards due to Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson colliding in the secondary. Ugh. Two plays later, the Giants found themselves in the red zone and the best duo since Joe Montana and Jerry Rice hooked up for the first time in the game when Jones found Hodgins for a 14 yard touchdown to put the Giants up 14-7.
Following the Giants 4 play, 81 yard drive, the Vikings offense looked like they had something going until everyone was reminded that Irv Smith Jr. was playing again, and dropped a crucial pass from Cousins that in essence killed the Vikings third drive, and they had to punt the ball back to the Giants.
The Giants’ third drive of the game, although ending in a field goal, drained the Vikings’ defense. A drive starting with 14:17 remaining in the second quarter ended with 3:25 left in the half, and the Giants were able to run 20 (!) plays for 85 yards, en route to a Graham Gano field goal that made it a two possession game, 17-7.
The Vikings leading receiver on the day was not Jefferson, but trade deadline acquisition T.J. Hockenson. The tight end finished with 10 catches for 129 yards, and had two huge catches for the Vikings on their second scoring drive. The 8 play, 75 yard scoring drive ended when Cousins found receiver K.J. Osborn for a nine yard score that brought the Vikings back within a field goal, 17-14.
Heading into halftime, I felt fortunate that the game was as close as it was, considering the Giants had not yet punted and the offense was keeping us within one score, where the Vikings had thrived all season. (11-0 in one score games) However, in the back of my head, a voice was screaming ‘This is where it all ends.’ I told it to shut up and let me have faith.
The Giants seemed to think the same thing, as they came out of the half and scored on a 6 play 75 yard drive when Jones found rookie tight end Daniel Bellinger WIDE OPEN for a 9 yard touchdown. This is when I started to worry that we were never going to get a stop on defense and the thought of Ed Donatell made me want to vomit all over the fans in front of me.
Luckily for them, I was able to hold it in thanks to some key plays from Hockenson and everyone’s favorite Minnesota State Maverick graduate Adam Theilen hauling in some great throws from Cousins on the way to Smith catching a rare touchdown, 24-21 Giants.
On the next drive, THE DEFENSE MADE A STOP. As I celebrated this rare and monumental feat by the Vikings, Jalen Reagor kept all of us Vikings fans humble by muffing the punt, which was fortunately recovered by the Tom Brady of special teams in Kris Boyd.
The Vikings next offensive drive was crucial, and when faced with a 4th and 2 from the Giants’ 43 yard line, Cousins stayed composed and fired a dart to Hockenson down the right sideline for 18 yards. However, since it is illegal for the Vikings to put their fans at ease, offensive tackle Oli Udoh false started on a fourth down play where Cousins picked up the first down on a quarterback sneak. This forced a field goal from kicker Greg Joseph, tying the game at 24 all with 12:34 to go.
As I continued to gnaw on my fingernails and sweat profusely, Daniel Jones and the Giants continued to dominate the Vikings’ defense on a 12 play, 75 yard touchdown drive that ended in a 2 yard score from Barkley to put the Giants back on top, 31-24.
The next two drives ended with punts from both sides, and with 2:56 remaining in the game, and potentially their season, Cousins and the offense trotted back out to try and force overtime. The voice in my head screamed ‘This is it!’ and I stood up to potentially watch my Vikings last drive of the 2022-23 season. After a questionable roughing the passer call, the Vikings picked up a first down on a short pass to Hockenson again, which would end up being their last first down of the year. Heading into the Two-Minute Warning, the Vikings were faced with 3rd and 8 from their own 48, in four-down territory. On third down, Cousins threw to a crossing Osborn in tight coverage, and he was unable to come down with the catch. So, there it was, 4th and the season for the Vikings. And on the most important play of the season, things could not have gone worse. Cousins dropped back to pass, and with Jefferson in triple coverage and Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence closing in, Cousins fired his final pass of the season to Hockenson, who was stopped 5 yards short of a Vikings first down. Ball game.
Now I could go into immense detail about that final play, but to keep it short, I do not blame Cousins for checking down. It was a puzzling call from O’Connell and I do not believe it was the best thing he could have drawn up. I know you will hear that Kirk Cousins can’t win playoff games and that he does not show up in big games, but that has been the farthest thing from the truth this year, and he played a great game on Sunday, going 31/39 for 273 yards and 3 total touchdowns.
I have been overjoyed with Cousins this year and I love him for all that he does on and off the field, and he was the quarterback for one of the best and most memorable Vikings teams in my lifetime. This season has been one of the most enjoyable and exciting seasons for me as a Vikings fan, and I will leave this here. With Jefferson in triple coverage and Dexter Lawrence breathing down his neck, I think that however disappointing it may have been, that it was the only option that could have gotten a first down. Skol.
Write to Hayden Lee at Hayden.Lee@mnsu.edu.
Header Photo: Take a look around: This may be the last time you see some of your favorite Vikings donning the purple and gold. (Hayden Lee/The Reporter)