Vikings, Jefferson start fast, knock off Packers in season opener

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS
·6 min read

Late in the Vikings' 23-7 victory on Sunday, as two final, futile Packers drives ended without points, Kirk Cousins was approached with the idea that he be the one to present game balls to General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O'Connell after their first win in Minnesota.

Cousins then brought the idea to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, who agreed and told Cousins the team already had the game balls set aside. "This isn't your first rodeo — you're on top of it," Cousins remarked.

It was a first, though, for Cousins, who said he couldn't remember ever presenting a game ball after a victory in his 11-year NFL career. But at the end of the Vikings' meeting in the locker room on Sunday, Cousins walked to the center of the circle with a football in each hand.

"You guys who have played in the league long enough know this, and I believe strongly, everything rises and falls on leadership: Speed of the leader, speed of the team. These two guys are running the organization, and we're going to go as far as they can take us," he said, before Wilf interjected, "All the way."

It will be months before these Vikings have any realistic idea of how far they can go; Cousins said as much to reporters after the game. This was one victory, against a team that has won the NFC North each of the past three years, and it came with the Packers missing their starting tackles (David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins) as well as their presumptive No. 1 receiver (Allen Lazard).

But oh, what a day this had to be for a franchise that staked the first year of Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell's regime on the premise it could return to contention with a change in coaches, schemes and culture — but not by overhauling its roster. On Sunday, quite simply, the Vikings outclassed their biggest rival by every possible measure.

Cousins, the quarterback whom the Vikings gave a new contract in March, completed 23 of his 32 passes for 277 yards. He threw both of his touchdowns to Justin Jefferson, the Pro Bowl receiver who looked liberated in his first game under O'Connell, lining up in the backfield for swing passes, moving all over the Vikings' formations and catching passes with stunning swaths of open turf in front of him. He finished with nine catches and a career-high 184 yards, including a franchise-record 158 on six catches in the first half.

BOXSCORE AND STATS: Vikings 23, Green Bay 7

The Vikings' defense, playing its first game in a 3-4 base package under Ed Donatell, had Rodgers hitching and holding the ball all day. The Vikings sacked Rodgers four times; former Packer Za'Darius Smith, who'd said this offseason he felt ostracized in Green Bay after having back surgery early last year, got the first one, and Dalvin Tomlinson consistently pressured Rodgers from his new spot at defensive end, recovering a fumble after Danielle Hunter and Jordan Hicks sandwiched the quarterback.

For the first time in Rodgers' 15-year tenure as the Packers starter, the Vikings held Green Bay to fewer than 10 points with the quarterback on the field. Mike Zimmer shut the Packers out once, in 2017, but that was with Brett Hundley at quarterback.

"I felt like overall the protection was pretty good," Rodgers said. "We had a couple that were probably on the line and a couple I probably could have dished. But they're a good team for sure. They're not going to be a three- or four-win team. That's going to be a team that we're going to be contending with in this division."

Game balls, numbers to know, what's next

Starting from the Vikings' first drive — a 10-play, 78-yard march that ended with seven consecutive passes from Cousins — through the 56-yard Greg Joseph field goal that came after the strip sack/fumble recovery early in the third quarter, the first 35 minutes of the game was euphoria for a fan base that saw its team finish a game out of the playoffs three of the past four years.

On that first drive, while fans howled about the officials' spot when Adam Thielen was ruled a yard short of a first down on a third-and-8 catch on the Packers' 4, O'Connell deliberated about neither a challenge nor whether to go for it on fourth down. He had a play call he liked so much that he quickly decided to keep the offense on the field.

The Vikings sent Jefferson in motion behind the line of scrimmage, and Cousins flipped him the ball for an easy score that came off his free release.

"It's been successful for us in practice," Cousins said with a smile. "You never know what practice will do in a game, but it worked for us in practice and worked for us today."

On the Packers' first offensive play, Rodgers threw deep for rookie receiver Christian Watson, the North Dakota State product selected with the 34th pick Green Bay got from the Vikings. Watson beat Patrick Peterson with a double move. Speed was Watson's best attribute coming out of college; his hands were his biggest liability, and Rodgers' perfectly placed throw, for what would have been an easy touchdown, fell right through them.

Rodgers targeted a receiver with only one of his next seven passes. On a fourth-and-goal play from the Vikings' 1 on the Packers' third drive, Smith — who'd already sacked Rodgers once — burst off the back side of the Green Bay formation to stop A.J. Dillon for no gain.

Cousins stepped up in the pocket and hit Jefferson for 64 yards on the Vikings' next drive, setting up a Joseph field goal and a 10-0 lead.

Late in the first half, Cousins targeted Jefferson on a deep over route, and the receiver beat Eric Stokes — the second-year Packers corner he'd victimized at U.S. Bank Stadium a year ago — to the pylon.

Fans serenaded Jefferson with "M-V-P" chants after the touchdown gave the Vikings a 17-0 lead. With 35 seconds left in the half, Rodgers heaved his next throw deep for Randall Cobb, and Harrison Smith hauled in his first interception of Rodgers since 2012.

"I feel like a little kid today, waking up this morning, excited for the game, especially for this type of rivalry," Jefferson said. "I live for these types of big games, so I'm glad I had this type of start."

It is, at this point, only a start. But for the receiver who waited 34 games to be over .500, the quarterback who felt emboldened enough to address the team and break down the huddle after the game, the first-time head coach and GM and the owners that bet on them, no start could have felt better.

"I told somebody, I've got to get used to having the camera on me; I was jumping around after a few of those [plays]," O'Connell said. "But you saw the reaction of our team, you saw the reaction of our fans. I was really just taking it all in at that moment. This is one I will not forget."