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Final Thoughts: Vikings Near Milestones While Keeping Team Focus

EAGAN, Minn. — Last weekend, the Vikings comeback victory against the Colts broke an NFL record that had stood for nearly 30 years.

It accomplished Minnesota's first primary team goal of winning the NFC North. While the team wants to continue to win, some individual records and milestones could be achieved on the offensive side of the ball when Minnesota hosts the New York Giants at noon (CT) Saturday.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins needs one touchdown pass to become the fifth player in NFL history with 25 or more touchdowns in eight consecutive seasons. That same touchdown pass will also tie him with Tony Romo for 24th in league history at 248.

Cousins needs 182 passing yards to reach the 4,000-yard plateau in a single season for the seventh time in his career. He also needs 228 yards to pass Matt Hasselbeck (36,638) for 28th in career passing yards.

Running back Dalvin Cook needs 23 rushing yards to pass Chuck Foreman (5,887) for third in franchise history.

Cook recently became the third player in franchise history to record four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He said while he understands the stats are a component to his accolades, he views his success as a team effort.

"It's all 11 guys committing to do something and having one mindset of being great at something," Cook said. "Those four consecutives [1,000-yard seasons], my guys up front, my receivers, quarterbacks, all that comes into me getting those yards. It's a team effort for all of us. We all have four straight 1,000 yards [seasons]."

Wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen also could surpass benchmarks this weekend. Thielen is 14 yards away from recording his sixth season with 700-plus receiving yards. Jefferson needs just 10 receiving yards to break former Viking Randy Moss' franchise single-season record of 1,632.

Jefferson, by the way, is 342 yards shy of breaking former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson's league record of 1,964 yards in a single season. That's a mark to keep an eye on in future weeks.

Jefferson said it would be special to set the league record, but he would rather see the team make a long playoff run instead.

"With the success that we have, the number of plays that I've been having, I've been doing pretty good," Jefferson said. "If I even get close to it, it's just going to be exciting that I even got close to it. Of course, I would want to get to it, but if we make it to the big goal, then it doesn't even really matter."

As a quarterback, Cousins said he has to balance finding success for both his teammates and the team in general.

"You want to see your team have great success and just behind that, you want to see your teammates have great success, and you want to see both," Cousins said. "For Justin, or for any teammate to do something that leaves a mark or can point to their individual success, that would mean a lot to me, it would mean a lot to coaches, and it matters to everyone, and you really want it with the team's success. If you can have both, that's what you want."

View photos of Vikings players showcasing the all-white jerseys they will be wearing at home against the Giants on Dec. 24.

Here's what Sam Thiel, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of will be watching for in Saturday's game:

Stopping the Giants backfield duo | By Sam Thiel

It's been a few weeks, but the Vikings defense will face another mobile quarterback in Daniel Jones, who is paired in the backfield with Saquon Barkley, a dynamic threat at running back.

While Jones currently ranks 16th in the NFL in passing yards (2,694) and is tied for 24th in passing touchdowns (12), he ranks fifth among quarterbacks with 583 rushing yards on 105 carries and has scored five times when running the ball.

Barkley has dealt with multiple injuries throughout his five-year career but is having his strongest season since he was a rookie in 2018. Barkley has rushed for 1,170 yards (fourth in the NFL) on 269 attempts (third) and has nine rushing touchdowns (tied for eighth). He's also hauled in 47 receptions for 294 yards.

"Saquon is at the highest level he's played at in his career. He's the starting point of this team and he's going to play to their strength," Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell said. "Daniel is playing well, he's got some dual threat to him, he's taking care of the football, they've got a good receivers group, and the line's blocking with a lot of confidence. This will be like a playoff opponent for us, and we're looking forward to it."

After allowing more than 400 yards of offense to opponents in five consecutive games, the Vikings defense bounced back last Saturday, holding Indianapolis to 341 yards — including 132 total yards in the second half and overtime combined.

"It speaks to who [our players] are. When things really get tough, it examines you and the real truth comes out, but it's a combination," Donatell added. "We're going to position our guys to whatever we think the best position is. We're still learning it. I can tell you there's been different combinations. We have young players, new players, and it's our job as a staff to figure that out. We pressured a little bit down the line, our guys came through, and they executed at the end."

Avoiding a victory hangover | By Lindsey Young

The Vikings are coming off an incredibly emotional, last-second overtime win in which they gave it their all for four hours.

Now, they have to make sure they don't carry the weight of that into Saturday's game against the Giants. Minnesota executed a similarly exhilarating win at Buffalo in Week 10, but the team was handily defeated at home by the Cowboys in Week 11.

"We talked after the Buffalo game about handling the success and being able to handle the emotional toll, sometimes, of games like that," Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said Tuesday. "I think our team, you know, we've got some experience now with that game and some of the others coming back, pouring everything into the ends of games to try to get that bump, so it's definitely something we've talked about this week.

"I think it's two-part, right? I think you acknowledge the emotional toll that it takes when you put everything you've got in you to achieve something," O'Connell continued, "but also to absolutely acknowledge the accountability and the ownership of the things we need to get better at. And that starts with me. There's a ton I can do better for our team. They know that, but they also know I'm demanding the level of standard of how we need to play football and how we need to worry about doing our jobs at a level that will continue to win football games and helping the guy next to you play winning football, as well. It all works together, and that message is clear, and we've gotta put it into action. We can only talk about it so much."

Veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson also emphasized the importance of coming out strong Saturday. Hopefully, he said, the team can lean on what went wrong following the Bills game.

"The thing about this is that we had an opportunity to go through this earlier in the year and didn't get the result that we wanted coming off that game. So we have a little bit of experience in that area, so this week is extremely important for us," Peterson said. "This is going to be like a playoff game. These guys are fighting for playoff implications, as well. We know they're going to get their best shot. Going into this game, we understand that. We understand that we have to be at our best at all times because now we're starting to prepare ourselves even more, knowing we are in the playoffs for sure.

"We're starting to think about, 'How can we get better to help us in the long run?' " He added.

Could screens help against blitz-heavy Giants? | By Craig Peters

The Giants defense loves to get in the face of opponents.

According to Next Gen Stats, New York leads the NFL in blitz percentage (45.3 percent) and in using six-man rushes (13.7 percent).

The results? When using four or fewer players to rush quarterbacks, the Giants have a pressure percentage of 26.5 and a sack percentage of 4.5. When sending five or more, those numbers increase to 34.2 and 9.0, respectively, but opponents' passer ratings have gone from 88.3 on non-blitzes to 94.1 on blitzes.

The Giants defensive front features four starters who were picked 50th or higher since 2015. Originally picked sixth overall that year by the Jets, Leonard Williams is the group's elder statesman. He plays alongside Dexter Lawrence, the 17th overall pick in 2019.

Those interior linemen have been joined by edge defenders Azeez Ojulari (50th in 2021) and Kayvon Thibodeaux (5th in 2022).

Lawrence is listed at 342 pounds, and he's aligned directly across the center on 268 snaps this season (second most in the NFL behind Raekwon Davis' 278). Lawrence has been credited with 44 quarterback pressures, which is tied with Washington's Jonathan Allen for the most among defensive tackles this season.

That means center Austin Schlottmann could have quite the task standing in front of him as he fills in for Garrett Bradbury for a third consecutive game.

Thibodeaux's 34 pressures trail only Detroit's Aidan Hutchinson (35) for the most by a rookie, and he's coming off a monster game against the Commanders.

What can help against an aggressive front?

Well, maybe the Vikings can build off their success in the screen game against Indianapolis, which followed several weeks of not yielding solid results.

Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips, Cousins and Cook all welcomed the effectiveness of the screens last week.

"The 64-yard touchdown was pretty good, but absolutely the screen game is something we want to keep injecting into the offense and keep improving on, because you saw we had three different screens that were at least 10-plus gains and that big touchdown," Phillips said. "Just slowing down the rush; they're kind of 'breather' downs a little bit, so to speak, for the quarterback where he's not having to deal with the rush, the protection, 'I've got to know the coverage.'

"There's times where we can kick stuff out and get it out of his hands quickly," Phillips added. "He doesn't have to take another hit, and get guys out in space, obviously with Dalvin. J.J. had a big one there at the end to get us down there closer. It's definitely something we were happy to see some improvement in that area."

Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Za'Darius Smith, T.J. Hockenson, Andrew DePaola, Dalvin Cook and Danielle Hunter are representing the Vikings at the 2023 Pro Bowl Games.

Cousins said the pass that Cook took the distance for the 64-yard touchdown is one of the easier throws he could get tasked. After the game, he said the play was probably his favorite he's seen Cook make. Seeing left guard Ezra Cleveland motor down the field all the way to the end zone added to the enjoyment.

"I told [Cleveland] in the locker room after the game that I'll always remember you running there step for step with Dalvin [Cook]. I think it's fun whenever you call those types of plays and screens that the lineman know it's nice to get out on the edge and engage in a different type of block, and I think all those guys love that type of opportunity."

Cousins was asked about the difficult the Vikings have had with screens this season and said they've been "a little more challenging."

"The opposite was true in [2019] where we were throwing screen after screen and continued to hit. Certainly, is a great way to move the football when you can because it tends to be higher reward and lower risk," Cousins said. "At the same time, [former Offensive Coordinator] Kevin Stefanski used to say 'They can be an outhouse or a castle when you call them.' You can have one that loses 5 or 6 yards or is dead to rights when you go to throw it, or you can have an enormous play, and sometimes when you call them, you don't know if you're going to get the outhouse or the castle, but you have to keep calling them."

Cook said he had fun getting the ball in open space and setting up good blocks by teammates.

"I feel like we hit a few screens in the game that got us in place to make some plays, just got to get those things rolling and that's just timing and committing to them and putting the reps in practice and paying attention to details," Cook said. "I feel like these last couple of weeks it's been more 'Let's get on the details of how we can get this thing back going.' "