PHILADELPHIA -- The Minnesota Vikings came in to their rematch of the NFC Championship Game on Sunday desperately hoping to get their swagger back.
They walk away from a 23-21 win over Philadelphia having achieved that feat by surviving a late push from the Eagles, halting an early losing streak in the process while regaining control of their season at a critical point.
The Vikings recaptured the spirit of what makes this team so good; why they haven’t been counted out in the NFC picture despite going through a host of ups and downs during the most difficult stretch on their schedule.
It wasn’t perfect, but the manner in which the Vikings earned their first road win of the season to get to 2-2-1 sets the tone after a tough five weeks.
"We talked all week," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "Coach Flip emphasized finishing. We have to finish tackles, we have to finish blocks, we have to finish the game. I think the message was heard and received, but it was very important this week because of the nature of getting out with a lead and then making sure we stayed the course and finished."
The Vikings were able to build a lead and then never trailed because of their defense.
After a slow start offensively in the first half when two straight drives to the red zone stalled on third-and-short and kicker Dan Bailey missed field goals from 28 and 45 yards out, the Vikings' pass-rush broke the game open.
With 4:24 to play in the second quarter, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz dropped back to pass with a fresh set of downs and was charged in the backfield by Stephen Weatherly. The Vikings' third-year defensive end rushed off the left edge before he sacked Wentz while forcing the ball loose. There to recover the fumble was nose tackle Linval Joseph, who breathed life into the game before he headed to the sideline to get back all the oxygen he expelled on the ultimate big-guy touchdown.
Joseph hauled the fumble recovery 64 yards in the other direction for the Vikings' first touchdown of the game and a 10-3 lead.
"I was watching on the jumbotron," Joseph said. "I was running to make sure no one came from behind."
It was actually Joseph who persuaded Cousins to break down the huddle after delivering a pregame speech. Cousins said he hopes the Vikings will get Joseph involved more offensively after seeing how fast he made his way down field.
"He’s light on his feet," Cousins quipped. "We’ll see if we can get him involved in the pass game. I’m always looking for athletes."
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Joseph reached a max speed of 18.2 miles per hour on his fumble return touchdown. To put that into context, Jets safety Marcus Maye reached a max speed of 18.3 miles per hour on his 104-yard interception return that wasn't a touchdown against the Broncos.
After a host of early-season struggles for his defense, coach Mike Zimmer went into a defensive meeting last Monday and laid it all out for his players after the Vikings had given up 38 points to the Rams four days prior.
"The defense is a very prideful group," Zimmer said. "I think after the performance last week, they wanted to get back to doing things.
"These guys really took to heart about the things that we had to try to accomplish to get better at what we’re trying to do."
When Minnesota needed a big defensive stop late in the game when its offense gave the Eagles unfavorable field position after Cousins fumbled while throwing laterally (it was ruled a backwards pass), the Vikings re-ignited their pass rush. They got after Wentz with just over nine minutes to play, stalling Philadelphia’s drive at Minnesota's 45-yard line before handing things back to the offense to burn off six and a half critical minutes in the fourth quarter with a 20-14 lead. That's when Latavius Murray notched 27 of the drive’s 55 yards.
Cousins was fantastic in the face of pressure all game, completing 30-of-37 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown. Adam Thielen recorded his fifth straight game with 100 yards receiving, becoming the third player in NFL history with 100 receiving yards in each of team's first five games of the season, joining Charley Hennigan in 1961 (Oilers) and Bob Boyd in 1954 (Rams), according to Elias.
Of Thielen’s seven catches for 116 yards and a touchdown, none stands out more than a 68-yard bomb Cousins threw while getting hit. Pinned inside their own 5-yard line, the Vikings were able to flip the field and cap off the drive with a field goal after the throw that highlighted the toughness Cousins displayed all game.
"You look at one of the first plays of the game when he’s getting hit and he just throws it out there and lets me go run to it and made a play," Thielen said. "All day he just continues to sit back there and trust us to get open. A lot of times he probably can’t even see us, but he trusts us as receivers to get open because that’s our job."
To seal the victory, the Vikings relied on the play of their special teams, which has gone through its own set of growing pains this season after releasing rookie kicker Daniel Carlson following the Green Bay game. His early misses behind him, Bailey nailed a 52-yard field goal with 2:51 left in the game to extend the Vikings' lead to 23-14. After one last scoring drive from Philadelphia under the two-minute warning, Thielen recovered the Eagles’ attempt at an onside kick to put the game away.
"It’s funny because I’ve seen him miss one kick in practice, and he missed those two early, but there was none bigger (than the 52-yarder) because it put us up two scores," Zimmer said of Bailey. "For him to make that kick is really why we brought him here."