The last time we saw the Minnesota Vikings in a regular season game, it felt like a funeral.
Mike Zimmer was about to be fired. Justin Jefferson came up short of setting a single-season record for receiving yards. Anthony Barr ate a popsicle at the podium to cope with the end of his time in Minnesota. Kirk Cousins disappeared into another dark offseason.
It was not a great day to be a Vikings fan — but that wasn’t the case this Sunday.
Many wondered how the old-look Vikings would perform under new-school head coach Kevin O’Connell. After dismantling the Green Bay Packers, Sunday’s game felt like an open-bar wedding.
It started from the first drive when the Vikings marched down the field. O’Connell immediately dumped out his bag of tricks, and it was something the Vikings hadn’t seen in years.
The Vikings passed on their first play. They ran on their first second-and-10, but it came out of a four-receiver set. There was a pre-snap motion. It was the type of stuff had Zimmer somewhere asking, What is this, witchcraft?
The end of the drive presented the first dilemma of the O’Connell era. Zimmer would have taken the points and relied on his defense to do the rest, but O’Connell realized he has one of the best receivers in the NFL.
Jefferson caught his first touchdown moments later, which fueled a big afternoon. The star receiver racked up yards faster than you could say, Run the ball, Garyand had 153 yards and two touchdowns…at halftime. His second touchdown came on a play where he was so wide open even he couldn’t believe it.
“When I caught the ball, I was definitely looking for somebody to be there,” Jefferson told reporters. “I was thinking someone was going to come from behind and tackle me. I thought Jaire Alexander ran with me, but he wasn’t there.”
Sorry, Justin. The Illusion of Complexity left him in Appleton.
The Vikings’ improvement wasn’t just limited to their star receivers. O’Connell preached about his relationship with Cousins, and on Sunday, Captain Kirk looked like a brand-new quarterback.
O’Connell called plays that were in his wheelhouse, using play-action and intermediate passes to move down the field. He threw a 64-yard bomb to Jefferson in the second quarter after — you might want to sit down for this — stepping up in the pocket.
When the game ended, Cousins had thrown for 277 yards and two scores but took center stage in the locker room. He spoke freely and not like a method actor trying to portray a quarterback. He handed O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah game balls for their first victory and cautioned that more work needed to be done.
“You guys that have played in the league long enough know this, and I believe strongly that everything rises and falls on leadership, the speed of the leader, and the speed of the team,” Cousins said. “These two guys are running this, and we’re going to go as far as they can take us.”
Is that Cousins taking ownership of the team? You’re damn right it is.
But this isn’t just about what happened to the Vikings on Sunday. This is about what happened around the NFC.
The Los Angeles Rams opened their Super Bowl defense by getting smacked around by the Buffalo Bills. The Philadelphia Eagles won a nail-biter against the Detroit Lions. The Dallas Cowboys lost to Dak Prescott to a hand injury, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn’t look anything like a dominant team.
Trey Lance is one bad interception from getting dropped like Woody in Toy Story 4. Kyler Murray would rather play video games. The New Orleans Saints barely beat the Atlanta Falcons. Meanwhile, the Vikings are the toast of the conference this week.
None of this felt as good as what was happening on the other sideline. Aaron Rodgers looked like he wanted to go to a remote shack somewhere deep in the Western Hemisphere to smoke peyote. Za’Darius Smith reminded A.J. Dillion that the mascot he destroyed last summer had a family. Matt LeFleur questioned his team’s effort in Week 1.
All of this made Vikings fans feel like they’re on the same drugs Rodgers has been talking about. The sky is purple. The sea is blue. The ship is ready, and it’s time to sail to the Super Bowl. Valhalla, I am coming!
We’ve strayed away from reality, but the message remains the same. One week into the O’Connell era, it feels like the Vikings are a different team than we’ve seen in years. That is what they hoped when keeping the roster intact, and it just might lead them to a successful season.