The Vikings recorded their first victory of the 2020 NFL season on Sunday, defeating the Texans 31-23 thanks in large part to three goal-to-go stands that yielded just six points for Houston.
There were multiple elements of how Minnesota wants to play: controlling the clock by running the ball, avoiding any turnovers and winning the field position for much of the game.
Minnesota won time of possession 36:31 to 23:29, and the Vikings rushed 40 times for 162 yards and three scores, compared to 26 rushes for 96 yards by the Texans.
View photos of RB Dalvin Cook's second touchdown during the Vikings-Texans game on Sunday at NRG Stadium.
The Vikings special teams forced the only turnover of the game, a fumble during a punt return by DeAndre Carter. Dan Chisena pressured Carter to disrupt his timing, and Mike Boone walloped him to jar the ball loose. Chisena pounced on it at the Houston 35-yard line, helping position Minnesota for a field goal and 10-0 lead.
Yet, for as much as the Vikings did right in a game they never trailed, there still were instances in which they appeared to be on the ropes or heading that direction. Nonetheless, Minnesota prevailed to improve to 1-3 on the season and drop the Texans to 0-4.
Pre-game question: Could the Vikings make the necessary plays in crunch time a week after failing to do so?
Forget the fact that Minnesota had played its most complete half of football in the 2020 season, and that Dalvin Cook had rushed 15 times for 60 yards and two scores in the first half. Nevermind an efficient first half by Kirk Cousins on 8-of-12 passing for 108 yards or Minnesota's stinginess in limiting Houston to just seven first downs and 112 net yards in the opening stanza.
The Vikings were starting to sputter in the third quarter on offense. They had a three-and-punt on their opening possession of the second half and a missed 55-yard field goal after a holding penalty on their second opportunity.
In between, Houston put together a crisp seven-play touchdown drive that Deshaun Watson capped with a 24-yard touchdown pass, capitalizing after the disqualification of Harrison Smith late in the second quarter.
View pregame images as the Vikings take on the Houston Texans on Sunday.
The Texans followed the Vikings missed field goal with a 43-yard pass and 25-yard field goal to make it 17-16 with 5:30 left in the third quarter.
Three plays later, Cousins was sacked for a loss of 2 to create a third-and-10.
The Texans blitzed, but the Vikings picked it up. Cousins was able to see Justin Jefferson get a step on Vernon Hargreaves III (they're near the Texans logo in the photo below) and perfectly place the ball for the rookie receiver to go up and get it with a fantastic grab on the move.
The play gained 23 yards and was followed immediately by a 19-yard pass — on a fadeaway throw — to Kyle Rudolph.
Cook followed with runs of 6 and 5, and Cousins fired a strike for a 9-yard touchdown to Thielen on the following play.
The Vikings defense forced a three-and-punt by the Texans, and Minnesota's offense came right back with a 73-yard touchdown drive.
Cousins connected with Jefferson on a back-shoulder throw for a gain of 25 on a third-and-6 a play before finding Thielen against 1-on-1 coverage for 25 more.
Cook zipped through the line for a 15-yard gain to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Alexander Mattison to go up 31-16. Cook, Thielen and Jefferson provided a historic combination for the Vikings.
Houston was able to rally for another touchdown in the fourth quarter and drove to the Minnesota 1-yard line with less than two minutes to play, but the Vikings denied the Texans.
"I thought we played really good in the first half, and offensively in the second half, we did a great job of coming back after they scored a couple times. I thought Justin Jefferson made some outstanding catches. Kirk made some really good throws today. Obviously, Dalvin's a really, really good football player and runner, and the offensive line protected well. It was good to get a win."
— Head Coach Mike Zimmer
It's just a feeling that you have. I think the more confidence he gets in understanding he can make those, the more he'll do them. But at the same time, we have to be smart with the ball. I don't believe we turned the ball over today. That's big too. Taking care of the football, time of possession. Our offense, we talked about trying to control the game offensively by the time of possession and getting first down, and I thought we did that."
— Zimmer on Cousins making more aggressive throws
"That was critical. I think in between our defense had a stop, which was big. So you kind of build off one another. I think our team, like starting the game when our defense gets them to punt quickly, I think that helps our offense. We had great field position all game long, too, which was a huge positive. I think field position is an underrated aspect of having a good day offensively. I felt like we were rarely backed up if at all and that enabled us to get into field goal range quickly. That was certainly a big couple of series to be able to pull away a little bit."
— Cousins on being able to turn the 17-16 lead into a 31-16 edge
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"It definitely feels good to win a football game, to help the confidence of our team, and to get us back in rhythm, knowing we can go out there and win a football game if we play as a whole in each phase of the game. And at the end of the game, the Texans came back and made it a game. They've got Deshaun Watson at quarterback, and they paid him top dollar. We knew what type of quarterback we were facing. So we had to go make a play, and Holton [Hill] made a great play. He was in great coverage [on a fourth-and-goal pass at the 5-yard line]. You've got to salute to the defense. We've got some young guys stepping up. Having Harrison go down, George [Iloka] stepped up. The next man rolls. You've got to salute the guys on defense for stepping up and making that play."
"Kirk has given me chances to go out there and make those plays. [Offensive Coordinator Gary] Kubiak is calling great games; he's been doing a great job feeding the ball to different players. That's the reason we have three players over 100 yards. It's only my fourth game of my career. We didn't have any preseason or anything before this, so I guess you could say this is my preseason and I'm just getting started."