Greg Joseph took his spot 4 yards shy of midfield, standing on the neck hair of the Norseman logo that had been painted white for the Vikings’ winter whiteout game on Christmas Eve.
Only one kicker in team history (Blair Walsh) had attempted a longer field goal than the 61-yarder Joseph would attempt with the Vikings and Giants tied at the end of regulation Saturday. The last time a Vikings kicker tried one even close to as long in Minneapolis, Ryan Longwell’s 57-yard attempt was returned by Antonio Cromartie for a 109-yard touchdown in 2007. With safety Julian Love stationed in the end zone to return Joseph’s kick if it fell short, right tackle Brian O’Neill knew he might need to make a game-saving stop.
“I started running down the field,” O’Neill said, “and Greg started running the other way.”
Joseph’s kick drew towards the center of the uprights, disappearing into a blizzard of fans in white jerseys and chill bumps. He trotted towards the opposite zone, spinning his right index finger in the air. His winner last weekend helped them complete the largest comeback in NFL history; his 61-yarder that gave the Vikings a 27-24 victory Saturday was the longest in team history.
“I looked over at Greg. I could just see he had a great look in his eye,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “He absolutely hammered that kick.
And so the Vikings had won for the 12th time this year, in a manner that long ago became a feature instead of a bug. The victory over the Giants was their NFL-record 11th by one score; it was their sixth this season where they had been outgained. But as they have all season, the Vikings summoned a certain kind of magic on deadline, scoring 17 of the 28 points in a wild fourth quarter that featured two lead changes and a tie.
“We’ve been in situations like this all year, whether it’s overtime, last play, [last] down, whatever, and if it’s gone this way the whole year, you can’t be surprised if it keeps happening,” O’Neill said. “We’ve had some experience and been able to come out on top, so I hope it prepares us well [for] the next couple of weeks.”
The Vikings (12-3) retained a one-game lead for the NFC’s No. 2 seed over the 49ers, who beat the Commanders on Saturday to improve to 11-4. The Vikings still have a chance at the No. 1 seed over the Eagles, but more likely they will need to stay ahead of San Francisco to keep the conference’s second spot and a chance to start the playoffs with two home games; Saturday’s game again showed how much they need to improve before the postseason.
They gave up 445 yards to a Giants offense that hadn’t produced more than 436 this season, as Daniel Jones connected on crossing routes designed to test the Vikings’ newfound use of man coverage. Cornerback Patrick Peterson estimated he was targeted seven times on crosses; Jones also hit Darius Slayton for 22 yards against nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan in the third quarter.
Running back Saquon Barkley gained 133 yards on 22 touches, bursting through the middle of the defense for a 27-yard score on fourth-and-2 that helped New York tie the score with 2:01 to go.
Offensively, the Vikings squandered a chance to put the game away earlier.
Peterson had stalked the sideline between defensive series, voicing his premonition he was going to intercept Jones one of the times the quarterback targeted him. He called his shot by undercutting a crosser for Isaiah Hodgins with 11:50 to go, putting the Vikings in position to go up by 11.
But the Vikings opted to throw in short-yardage situations on both third and fourth down, with Cousins throwing incomplete for Jefferson on fourth-and-2 off a deep route that also had Adam Thielen in the same area.
“We weren’t exactly at our best throughout,” O’Connell said. “We’re still hunting that four quarters of true, consistent football that we want to see. But I was really proud of our guys, the complementary football that showed up there to help put that thing away.”
There might have been no bigger example of it than with 4:10 to go, when Josh Metellus raced through to block Jamie Gillan’s punt and Troy Dye tackled Love short of a first down after the safety recovered the ball.
After taking over at the Giants 29, Cousins hit Jefferson for a 17-yard touchdown on a third-and-10 when the receiver broke his route inside between Giants cornerback Fabian Moreau and safety Jason Pinnock, stretching for the end zone as both players tried to tackle him. Joseph’s PAT gave the Vikings an eight-point lead.
“Just his ability to hold on and finish, it’s elite,” Cousins said of Jefferson, who set franchise records for receiving yards and receptions in a season Saturday. “Probably owed him a few more. There were a few more plays out there for him. The short yardage in the first half where I didn’t throw it well enough to him. Glad that we got to finish with a couple big completions there to him.”
On a third-and-9 with 1:16 left, Cousins threw toward the left sideline with a Giants defender in his face, trusting Jefferson would get to a spot the quarterback couldn’t see. Jefferson beat Darnay Holmes to the spot and hauled it in for 16 yards.
Then, with 19 seconds left, Cousins walked to the line of scrimmage and saw the Giants preparing to blitz him from the Vikings 41. He motioned tight end TJ Hockenson — who caught a career-high 13 passes for 109 yards and two scores — into the slot, and set up a screen for Jefferson, who followed blocks from guards Ed Ingram and Ezra Cleveland for 17 yards.
If not for Love’s ankle tackle, Jefferson might have finished the day with an unforgettable touchdown. Instead, Cousins spiked the ball with 4 seconds to go and O’Connell called for Joseph.
He had struggled on longer kicks after a terrific training camp and preseason, with special teams coordinator Matt Daniels pinning the problem on the kicker’s follow-through when he pushed the ball to the right. But Joseph had made 19 straight field goals or extra points when he lined up for the final time Saturday. The kick cleared the uprights with plenty of room to spare.
“I forgot that we hit [a game-winner] last week,” long snapper Andrew DePaola said. “I’m assuming he takes the same approach as me and it’s just the next kick. I completely forgot that’s two game-winners in a row.”
Such is life for the 2022 Vikings, where climatic victories seem almost to roll off an assembly line.