Even during what Justin Jefferson called the most challenging season of his football career, the star receiver still found a way to make history.
Jefferson entered Sunday needing 118 yards to surpass 1,000 on the season. In J.J.-style, he hit the milestone with a highlight, a 38-yard touchdown with 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter of the Vikings regular-season finale at Detroit.
The fourth-and-1 conversion sparked a 24-point back-and-forth between the Vikings and the Lions, including a 70-yard Amon-Ra St. Brown score and a 42-yard Jordan Addison touchdown reception.
But Minnesota couldn't keep up with the Lions explosive offense, losing 30-20 at Ford Field. The Vikings finished the season with a 7-10 record after dropping their final four contests. Minnesota finished third in the NFC North, behind Detroit (12-5) and Green Bay (9-8) and ahead of Chicago (7-10).
Though the outcome and season didn't go how Jefferson originally envisioned, he saved his best outing for last, gashing the Lions for a season-high 192 yards and catching 12 of his 14 targets.
"I can't say enough about him. You try to explain it, about what his impact is on the game, and for him to have the success that he does, when sometimes, he's playing against multiple defenders," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "He sets the standard of competing at a world- class level. And there's a lot that we can all follow, as far as the example he sets."
Jefferson is the target of every defensive game plan. He routinely combats handsy cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage and lurking double teams downfield. This season included Jefferson missing seven games due to a Week 5 hamstring injury, which was the longest absence of his football career.
For the first time in franchise history, Minnesota started four different quarterbacks. Jefferson caught at least one pass from all four. Jefferson and the Vikings consistently endured hardships in a season that was supposed to be built around continuity.
"It's really hard to explain the words because it's just not the type of season that we would like, you know, just all the things that happened, all of the injuries, all the different things that put us some steps back a little bit, you know, it's a tough season, a tough game that we play, but I'm always going to be out there and try to give it my all," Jefferson said. "I'm always gonna go out there and try to make as many plays, as many catches, and really touchdowns as I can to make my team win and to put us in the best situation possible. But it's just tough, you know, with all the stuff that we deal with throughout the season."
For the third time in three starts, quarterback Nick Mullens threw for more than 300 yards, but he was under consistent pressure throughout the game as the Vikings offensive line was down multiple starters. Right tackle Brian O'Neill (ankle) and right guard Ed Ingram (shoulder) were inactive. Left guard Dalton Risner exited in the first half with an injury but returned.
Mullens endured 15 quarterback hits (five by defensive end Adian Hutchinson) and was sacked four times. He battled in the pocket, completing 30 of 44 passes for 396 yards, two touchdowns, and a pair of interceptions on each of the Vikings final two drives.
After the game, Mullens expressed how much this season meant to him. He said throwing to Jefferson is special, but watching him compete is equally inspiring.
"[I'm] very thankful to just be around a player like that, a teammate like that, and being able to get out there on the field with him. He's an incredible player and incredible talent and a great guy off the field," Mullens said. "And I think his competitiveness should be very noteworthy because yeah, he's very talented. But his killer mindset. You can see it all across the field."
The Vikings started slowly – their first two drives gaining just 31 yards on nine plays – while the Lions scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions. But Greg Joseph netted two second-quarter field goals, and the Vikings defense held the Lions scoreless to make it 13-6 at halftime.
Then Jefferson, who wasn't targeted in the first quarter, started doing what he usually does against the Lions. He followed up his 88 receiving yards on six catches in the second quarter with six more for 104 yards in the second half.
"I first went out there when he scored," K.J. Osborn said. "That's one of my guys, one of my closest friends. Throughout these four years, we've grown so close to each other and are like family. We've spent a lot of time with each other. I see how hard he works in the offseason so for him to be able to get that man. Happy for him."
Jefferson continues to produce against the Lions. In his past three games against Detroit, he's caught 29 passes for 556 yards and two touchdowns. Detroit also became the first team to surrender 1,000-plus career yards to Jefferson.
Though the Vikings were a longshot to make the playoffs, Jefferson never let up. He flashed some frustration in the first half, most notably after losing 12 yards on a reverse from the Lions 8-yard line. O'Connell called a reverse pass that did not trick Hutchinson, who walled Jefferson in the backfield just two plays after a 22-yard Jefferson reception pushed Minnesota into the low red zone.
"[He's] competing like crazy to win the game. The reason why that is what it is, is the fire inside him to do that. And the frustration is going to come sometimes when we don't execute or we don't capitalize on some opportunities and that's all part of it," O'Connell said. "And I would be a little worried if it wasn't like that to be honest with you just because knowing who he is, and how much this game means to him every single snap out there."
That's Jefferson. Resilient, team-first and often unstoppable. When the Vikings need a play, he's there. Either jumping over multiple defenders or racing by single coverage. His 39-yard touchdown came on a fourth-and-1 play that Minnesota had to have.
Since joining the Vikings in 2020, Jefferson has become a pillar of both the Vikings and the NFL. This season, he embraced leading the team and mentoring Addison, who caught his 10th touchdown on Sunday, tying him with Sammy White (1976) for second-most touchdowns by a Vikings rookie.
Jefferson entered the season with lofty goals fitting of a generational talent. A Week 5 hamstring injury cost him seven games. Yet, he became just the third player in league history to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards playing in 10 or fewer games.
In another example of excellence, Jefferson became just the fifth player in NFL history to start his career with four straight seasons with 1,000-plus receiving yards, joining Mike Evans, Michael Thomas, A.J. Green and Randy Moss.
But at just 24 years old, individual accolades aren't his motivation. Jefferson is fixated on one prize. An elusive trophy he plans to capture with the Vikings.
"It's really tough. I always want to have another opportunity. I always want to be in the playoffs, competing for the Super Bowl. I want all of that, so to not be able to have a chance to be in the playoffs and fight an extra day is just tough. It's a hard pill to swallow," Jefferson said. "Like I said, I give it my all. I always want to be out there and try to do as much as possible. I feel like I did as much as I can today and just wasn't able to come out with the win."