MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings quickly found their stride under rookie head coach Kevin O'Connell as a confident, close-knit and resilient team — featuring the league's leading receiver — with an NFL-record 11 wins by eight points or fewer.
Just because O'Connell's career is ascending doesn't mean this season of strong wills and late-game thrills can be replicated with the current core.
The Vikings face eight-figure salary-cap hits in 2023 for eight players, five of them age 30 and older, in a crunch that likely will force the departure of a key player or two. Then there's the statistical improbability of staying undefeated under O'Connell in one-score games.
“NFL stands for ‘not for long,’ and people move on. I kind of felt like this is a special group, and there’s a time sensitivity here where we've got to do it now,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said after the Vikings beat the New York Giants on Dec. 24.
The playoffs have arrived, starting with a rematch on Sunday against the Giants in the wild-card round. The Vikings (13-4) are back after a two-year absence that triggered the coaching change, eager to prove their viability despite a negative point differential that has fueled external doubts about their legitimacy as a contender in the wide-open NFC.
“We can be as dangerous as we want to be," said Justin Jefferson, whose 1,809 yards and 128 receptions were the sixth and seventh-most of all time. "I feel like we shoot ourselves in the foot the majority of the time when things don’t go our way.”
The Giants (9-7-1) are in the playoffs for the first time since 2016, with their own first-time head coach in Brian Daboll. They went 22-59 over the previous five seasons.
“To be on the other side of it, it means a lot. It’s about what we do now from this point on and how we handle this opportunity, how we prepare and ultimately how we play,” quarterback Daniel Jones said. “We’re certainly happy we are where we are. But there’s a lot more.”
The Giants haven't had a postseason victory since their Super Bowl championship 11 years ago. They snagged the second of three wild-card spots while playing in the NFL's strongest division this season, but after winning only two of their last eight games, they largely are being overlooked in the field while likely having to play on the road the entire time they're alive.
“We’re going to be humble about it, and we’re going to go about our work while everybody sleeps on us," safety Julian Love said. "We take it one week at a time. We know it’s never going to be perfect. We’re going to continue to be who we are.”
The Giants, who were fourth in the league in rushing, have run for at least one touchdown in a franchise-record 15 straight games.
Saquon Barkley's return to his rookie-year form after a couple of injury-wrecked seasons was one of the catalysts for the turnaround by the Giants, who gave him 352 touches — including a team-high-tying 57 receptions — for the third-most in the NFL.
“We know he has a bunch of tools,” Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We know that they're going to give him the ball any way they can.”
Jefferson had 12 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown and tight end T.J. Hockenson had 13 catches for 109 yards and two scores in the matchup last month, but the Giants have safety Xavier McKinney back from the broken hand that cost him seven games. Cornerback Adoree' Jackson, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since Nov. 20, could be ready this week as well.
“Even when me and Adoree’ are out there, they’re going to make plays,” McKinney said. “When you face another great player, you have to limit them. You can’t really stop them all the way.”
IF THE GAME COMES DOWN TO A KICK ...
Both teams ought to be confident. Graham Gano was 29 of 32 on field-goal attempts and 32 of 34 on extra points for the Giants. One of his field-goal misses was blocked, and the other was a 58-yarder into the wind on the last play of overtime in the 20-20 tie against Washington on Dec. 4. He scored 119 points and set a team record with eight field goals of 50-plus yards.
Greg Joseph gave the Vikings the 27-24 victory three weeks ago with a franchise-record 61-yard field goal as time expired. Though he missed seven field goals (26 for 33) and six extra points (40 for 46), Joseph had a team-record five game-winning field goals this season.
CAN'T HEAR YOU
The Vikings will have a handy advantage with the crowd noise at home, where they're 40-18 since U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016. The only NFC team with a better home record since then is Green Bay (45-16-1). The Vikings hosted only one playoff game in their first six years at U.S. Bank Stadium, the “Minneapolis Miracle” win over New Orleans on a last-play touchdown pass in the divisional round after the 2017 season.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL