MINNEAPOLIS — Regardless of what happens during an opponents' drive toward the goal line, if there's a blade of grass — or synthetic turf — to defend, the Vikings defense believes it can do so.
It didn't matter Sunday if the Jets made it to the Vikings red zone six times in the second half. Nor that New York had first-and-goal from the Minnesota 4-yard line with four plays inside the 2-minute warning to take the lead.
It also didn't matter that the offense was unable to move the chains after Jordan Hicks broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Braxton Berrios on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Just 24 seconds of game later, Minnesota had to go back out and get one final stop, which was provided when Camryn Bynum intercepted a pass intended for Corey Davis at the 1-yard line to end a fourth-and-10 from the 19.
Asked how hard it is to face repeated goal-to-go situations for an offense, Hicks said, "We don't think about that. We play the next play."
"I think that's what makes this team special. It doesn't matter about the situation," Hicks added. "We are just out there playing defense, and as the cliché goes, as long as there's a blade of grass to defend, then we do it. That's the mentality of this defense."
The pick by Bynum, who also tipped a pass that Harrison Smith intercepted earlier in the game, sealed a 27-22 victory and improved Minnesota to 10-2 on the season, which includes a 4-0 sweep of the AFC East. This is the first time Minnesota has swept the division since the NFL formed its current alignment in 2002 (the NFC North plays the AFC East every four seasons).
"Our guys expect to find a way, and I think the situational success on third down and red zone, players can feel that," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "Although we feel like at times maybe defensively we're giving up some chunks yardage-wise, or offensively we just can't punch through like we did on that touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, that was just execution by our guys offensively; and at the end of the game there, defensively, being at their best when we need them to be, that's kind of been the theme for us this year.
"I still think it's within us to be a little more consistent, coach a little bit more consistent, but as I told our team, 10 wins in this league through 12 opportunities, I think they've earned the right to feel confident, but I do think we've got to prepare like every single week is the most important game of our season because that's what we've done," O'Connell said. "I give our players a ton of credit, our leadership a ton of credit for that. As we move forward here, we're going to continue to be tested, and we're going to have to earn the right to go into these games with the confidence this 10-2 record means absolutely nothing. We've got to go prepare, get better and play our best here at the end of the season."
The Vikings defense turned in a dominant first half, limiting the Jets to 2-for-8 on third downs and only allowing 6 points, including 3 on a 60-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein that set a New York franchise record near the end of the second quarter.
Minnesota contained the run, limiting the Jets to 32 yards on nine carries, and only allowed Mike White to complete 14 of 26 passes with a passer rating of 50.3.
The Jets didn't advance the ball past the Vikings 30 a single time in the first half, but they were able to find explosive plays in the second half.
New York had drives of 43 and 62 net yards in the third quarter and followed with possessions that covered 63, 75 (24 on a penalty), 83 and 24 in the fourth quarter.
The yield, however, was three field goals and one touchdown, eventually awarded on a QB sneak by White after a review overturned a ruling that White had been stopped shy.
"You just hang tight. You know what they give you and you just have that mentality when you get down there in the red zone," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "Today, we definitely had that mentality. We did a great job in the first half limiting their explosives. Second half, we kind of gave up some big ones that put us in bad situations, but we held tight. We kept them out a couple of times. We had a turnover on fourth down. We had one that was overturned that was really close, but things like that happen.
"Overall, I am just really proud of my guys. We battled. We are always in it. We are always fighting and clawing. It's going to come in handy for us these next couple weeks going into the postseason," Kendricks added. "We still have a lot of work to do. and I'm just excited to finish out this season."
Part of the problem was that Minnesota's offense struggled to stay on the field in the second half, possessing the football for just 5:30 in the third quarter and 6:00 in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings netted just 10 yards and punted thrice to end its first three possessions of the second half before finding the answers on a 75-yard touchdown drive capped by Justin Jefferson for a 27-15 lead with 8:33 remaining.
The offense, however, netted five yards on its next two possessions that lasted 1:15 and 0:24.
"I feel confidence in our guys to execute the call, to continue to communicate at a high level, and when the field shrinks, it's about execution and tightening up and finding a way to be just a little bit better," O'Connell said. "Every blade of grass matters. Every time you put your foot in the ground and make a break, every time we can get pressure on the quarterback and force him off the spot, it all works together — no greater moments than in that red zone. It's a great point, and then offensively on the other side to be 3-of-3 when we get down there, three touchdowns, two runs and then the Kirk [Cousins] touchdown [pass to Jefferson]."
Cousins credited the defense and the coaching staff for the repeated stops.
"I do think it goes back to you get what you emphasize, and whether it's the situational masters meeting every Friday that it's being coached again and again, I just think that it's been emphasized quite a bit, and I do think we have smart players, players that are real pros and take it with a lot of discipline and detail, and I think it does show up in those moments," Cousins said.
He explained his mindset from the sideline as one of belief that the defense will get a stop but also mentally preparing in case the offense needs to provide a response.
"My mind is going to — you have to negatively think, 'OK, when they score, if they score, what are we doing?' Similar to Buffalo when our defense got the touchdown for us on the fumbled sneak, I'm thinking about, 'All right, they're going to go down, kick a field goal, send us to overtime.' I've got to get my mind ready for that.
"It's obviously the negative way to think, but it's your best way to then play well when the ball gets to you next," Cousins said. "You try to always think about, 'What's the scenario where we get the ball back and we've got to do something with it?' And then when they get the stop, that's obviously a bonus."