In hindsight, Christian Watson’s dropped catch on the Green Bay Packers’ first pass from scrimmage almost doesn’t make sense. It goes against everything we know about the Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota sports. The Packers traded two second-round picks to Minnesota to take Watson at 34. He played at North Dakota State, so the Vikings had passed on a star player from a popular local(ish) school. A touchdown on that play may have changed the dynamics of a game Minnesota won 23-7.
Karma should have punished the Vikings. Instead, Watson let the ball sail through his hands, and Aaron Rodgers‘ body language soured. Rodgers relied more on Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins than his star rookies, Romeo Doubs and Watson. Matt LaFleur took the ball out of his hands on fourth-and-goal from the one, and Harrison Smith picked off his YOLO deep shot toward the end of the half. Rodgers also fumbled as Jordan Hicks sacked him on the first drive in the second half, and Dalvin Tomlinson recovered it.
But what if Watson had scored on that first play? The Packers would have instead been tied 7-7 at the goal line. Maybe LaFleur dials something up for Rodgers. Perhaps A.J. Dillon generates enough oomph to punch the ball in. Then it’s a whole different ballgame.
“They had a good one called at that point and very, very close to being a massive explosive [play],” acknowledged Kevin O’Connell. “But, you know what? It would have been on us as the offense to then kinda go sustain and try to make a change to that momentum early, and go snatch it back and allow the defense to kinda get their stuff together.
“But the play wasn’t made, and luckily we were able to kinda move on from that one.”
The Vikings were up 17-0 at halftime but pressed to score throughout the game. However, they opted to kick a field goal up 7-0 instead of going for it on fourth-and-two after the turnover on downs. Smith picked off Rodgers following a seven-play, 74-yard drive that put Minnesota up 17-0 with 2:23 to go in the half. But they went three-and-out after Cousins threw to Dalvin Cook twice and checked down to Irv Smith Jr. Tomlinson recovered Rodgers’ fumble at Green Bay’s 33-yard line, but the Vikings lost five yards and settled for a field goal to make it 20-0.
Minnesota could have won this game by more. They could have easily scored 30 points against Green Bay’s revamped defense. Justin Jefferson was sensational, catching nine balls for 184 yards, including a 64-yarder where Cousins slid in the pocket and hit him in stride. But Cousins also led him too far on a pass in the end zone. Cousins also opted against two early shot plays and checked down a few times when he had Adam Thielen one-on-one.
“His pocket presence today was really, really good,” said O’Connell. “I thought his decision-making, a couple times, they were close to having him in the grass, and he knew where to go with the ball, safe to go with the ball. Checked it down when we needed to. But pushed the ball down the field when [opportunities] presented [themselves]. [I] was really, really happy with the way Kirk played. A lot to build on with our offense.”
O’Connell is right to praise Cousins, who finished 23/32 for 277 yards. Still, there are areas to improve. Thielen finished the game with 36 yards and was Minnesota’s second-leading receiver. Cook’s 18 yards receiving and Johnny Mundt‘s 17 were more than K.J. Osborn‘s 14. The officials overturned Irv Smith Jr.’s lone catch, a three-yard checkdown. The Vikings’ offense is capable of more. Sure, 23-7 is a satisfying win, especially in O’Connell’s debut, but they may have caught the Packers at the right time. The defense didn’t have any tape on O’Connell’s new scheme, and Rodgers hasn’t developed chemistry with his young receivers.
A win’s a win over the Packers, though. Jefferson exploded. Cousins often looked comfortable in the pocket and occasionally bought himself time to air it out. Minnesota’s defense was stout, forcing critical turnovers and sacking Rodgers four times. But the Vikings can be better than this. Cousins needs to trust Thielen when he’s one-on-one and has to be accurate in the red zone. Irv Smith Jr. has to show he’s the modern hybrid tight end he was at Alabama. Minnesota’s other skill players will have to step up when teams scheme to take away Jefferson.
But the Vikings were a sleeping giant all along. O’Connell has something here if he can tap into everything his players are capable of.