Vikings stretch past offensive struggles to beat Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Minnesota Vikings leave their second trip to the East Coast in three weeks with a win, defeating the New York Jets 37-17 on Sunday to claim sole possession of first place in the NFC North. But it took them surviving their own inability to execute offensively at times to earn a third straight win.

Both teams turned in ugly offensive performances in the first half. The Kirk Cousins who dominated on the road in places like Green Bay, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, showcasing the highest level of his individual game in pressure situations, cooled off quickly upon leading the Vikings down the field on the game’s opening drive, when he hit Adam Thielen for a 34-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Minnesota failed to convert a single third down in the first two quarters, going 0-for-8 in such situations, and often was stuck with tough down-and-distances. Cousins faced a third-and-21, third-and-14 and two third-and-11s in the first half, as plays sometimes appeared slow to develop on early downs. The Vikings' first third-down conversion didn’t come until 10:32 in the third quarter, when Cousins hit Thielen over the middle for a 13-yard gain.

Thielen rewrote history on Sunday, becoming the first player in the Super Bowl era to record 100 yards receiving in each of his team’s first seven games, turning nine catches into 110 yards receiving and a touchdown. His 21-yard reception with 7:06 to play in the game pushed him over the century mark.

Cousins finished 25-of-40 passing for 241 yards and two touchdowns.

“[It was] all over the map,” Cousins said of the Vikings' offensive performance. “There were a lot of positives. Any time you score 37 points on the road, you’re doing something right. There were certainly a lot of places that weren’t good enough. When you have special teams giving you good field position and you have a defense giving you the ball back, it probably makes it look better than it really was.”

Added coach Mike Zimmer: “We had so many opportunities to put that game away earlier and didn’t do it. ... There were two or three turnovers that we didn’t take advantage of.”

After Cousins was sacked for a 13-yard loss that put the Vikings at their own 1-yard line in the first quarter, Matt Wile booted his longest punt of the day, for 68 yards. It was Wile’s best outing of the season, averaging 47.8 yards per punt -- which was aided in part by the wind gusts at MetLife Stadium -- and he landed four punts inside the 20-yard line. Wile’s ability to flip the field consistently put Minnesota in position to score more often than it did, with six of the Vikings’ nine first-half drives resulting in the ball being punted away.

The wind also played an obvious factor in the kicking game. Before halftime, Dan Bailey saw his perfectly placed, 42-yard field goal attempt sail wide left after the wind pushed the ball off course.

“Operation, ball striking, everything was ... honestly, if I had to do it 10 more times, I’d do it the same way,” Bailey said. “At our stadium on a day where there’s no wind, no nothing, that would have been right down the middle. Unfortunately, that happens sometimes, but it was great operation, great ball strike. Just got a big gust of wind and knocked it down.”

While Minnesota’s offense struggled to convert on third down, its defense continued its recent dominance, etching a streak of 20 straight third-down stops that dated back to the end of the Eagles game in Week 5. Facing a rookie quarterback for the second straight week, the Vikings' defense held Sam Darnold to 17-of-42 passing for 206 yards, a touchdown and a 34.4 passer rating. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, Darnold was 11-of-33 passing with three interceptions in the final three quarters. That’s the worst completion percentage from the second to fourth quarters by any quarterback this season with a minimum of 15 attempts.

It wasn’t until the second half that the Vikings' offense was finally able to take advantage of the boost the defense provided. Harrison Smith, Holton Hill (on his first play filling in for an injured Xavier Rhodes) and Trae Waynes each picked off a Darnold pass, setting up the offense to extend the lead. On those three instances, the Vikings settled for two field goals by kicker Dan Bailey and Cousins connected with Aldrick Robinson for a 34-yard touchdown and a 34-17 lead. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson also recovered a fumble in the second quarter, but the drive ended in a punt.

“I do think that our offense putting up 37 points says more about our defense and our special teams than it does about anything I or we did today that was outstanding,” Cousins said.

Minnesota’s running game initially had trouble following up its explosive performance against Arizona, but choosing to not abandon the ground attack proved beneficial. Latavius Murray notched his second straight game with two rushing touchdowns, and the Vikings finished with 89 yards on the ground as the running game broke through late.

“Sometimes we get impatient and we have to control the clock, we have to control the running game,” Zimmer said. “In the first half, we didn’t really stick with it at times, but we got down in there. You can’t just run the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball -- or throw the ball, run the ball, throw the ball. Sometimes you have to run [and] run, so that was part of it.”

With the win and the Chicago Bears' 38-31 loss to the New England Patriots, the 4-2-1 Vikings sit alone in first place in the NFC North. The 3-2-1 Green Bay Packers are on a bye this week.