MINNEAPOLIS – Harrison Smith made quite the return in more ways than one for the Vikings on Sunday night.
In his first game back on the field since Week 13, the Vikings safety proved he hasn't missed a step.
With 5:16 remaining in the first quarter, Giants quarterback Eli Manning dropped back and made a short pass toward wide receiver Rueben Randle on third-and-1. Smith, however, read the play perfectly, snagged the interception, and ran it down the sideline 35 yards for a touchdown.
"I was the middle-of-the-field safety, so I got a little freedom and a break on the quarterback," Smith said. "Nothing crazy, but just playing football."
For Smith, getting back into the lineup made all the difference. Having missed two games was trying for the safety who is a competitor by nature.
"I don't show it a lot, but I'm pretty emotional, so it's tough [sitting out]," Smith said, tearing up. "At the same time, I love watching the guys play, and a lot of guys stepped up. I'm just happy to be a part of this team."
"It's just the game of football," Smith added. "I love it."
It was a pick-me-up for the defense that helped fuel a 49-17 victory for the Vikings (10-5). Running back Adrian Peterson was one offensive player who appreciated Smith's performance after the game:
"To come out in his first game with a pick six, he's a warrior," Peterson said. "He's a guy that, if I'm starting a team, he's my first pick. So I got to take my hat off to him. He's the ultimate competitor, and he's a great talent."
Smith now has two interceptions this season, his first being an intercepted Peyton Manning pass against the Broncos on Oct. 4. Smith became the first player to intercept both Manning brothers in one season since former Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud accomplished it in 2012.
"It's cool. I'm from Knoxville, so I grew up watching Peyton," Smith said. "Growing up watching both of them, they were both great players, so it's nice to be able to do that."
The pick six was the fourth of Smith's career, which set a franchise record. Eight other players are tied with three.
Smith's interception gave Minnesota the 16-3 lead and kept the team's momentum rolling. On the next series, the Vikings defense forced the Giants to punt, and Minnesota was able to squeeze in another drive capped off by a 52-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.
Following the game, Smith received a *Sunday Night Football *Player of the Game ball, along with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson.
Smith's pick was one of three Minnesota interceptions Sunday.
Safety Andrew Sendejo came up with an interception midway through the first quarter, after cornerback Xavier Rhodes tipped a Manning pass intended for wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who started the game in place of the suspended Odell Beckham, Jr.
"Really, it was a good play by Xavier. He had good coverage and was able to deflect the ball up into the air, and I just happened to be standing there," Sendejo said of the play. "Really, that play should be credited to Xavier. The ball turned up in the air, and as a safety that's the [scenario] that you kind of dream of – just a tipped ball right to you. It was pretty much the easiest interception you'll probably get, but you take advantage of any turnovers you can get."
Although the subsequent drive did not end in any Vikings points, Sendejo's interception effectively stopped any building energy by New York and allowed Minnesota to control the ball for just over 10 minutes of the first quarter.
Getting to Manning early was key to the Vikings win. Coming into the game, Manning had 11 interceptions and just four touchdowns in seven games against Minnesota. After tonight, Manning has five touchdowns and 14 interceptions against the Vikings, with a completion percentage of 54.1 and passer rating of just 54.8.
While several factors have contributed to the Vikings' success against Manning and the Giants, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who recorded the team's third interception of the night, gave a lot of credit to Head Coach Mike Zimmer for the team's defensive success as of late.
"If you look at his track record, he always turns defenses around," Munnerlyn said of Zimmer. "He's a great coach. Last year, it was kind of tough for me to figure out some of the things he wanted me to do, but I feel like I got it this year, and my play is showing it. I'm playing a whole lot better than I did last year."
Munnerlyn's third-quarter interception brought his career total to 11, four of those during his two seasons in Minnesota. Munnerlyn also has six career pick sixes, falling just short of a seventh against the Giants. Although he ran the ball into the end zone, it was determined he stepped out of bounds at the 3-yard line, and the touchdown was called back.
"I saw Eli throw it, and I made a play on the ball," Munnerlyn said. "I should have scored, but I didn't, and I'm upset about that. I think I'm going to go back to the drawing board and see what I can do better."
With players back healthy and a trio of interceptions in a big win over New York to clinch a playoff berth, the Vikings secondary is feeling pretty good, using that momentum to now focus on Week 17 at Green Bay.
The NFL has also flexed next week's game to Sunday Night Football, moving the original noon kickoff time to 7:30 p.m. (CT). Although Minnesota has historically struggled in primetime games, Sunday's performance boosts the team's confidence about playing under the lights.
"We know it's going to be a tough game. [The Packers] are the defending champions of the NFC North, and we're trying to take that crown away. We're trying to dethrone them. So we know it's going to be tough, but at the same time, this team is built for that," Munnerlyn said. "We're excited just to be able to play those guys."