Week 8 across the NFL was filled with the offensive explosions that had thus far been lacking this season. Many games came down to the wire, with nine one possession games including an overtime game. Per usual, the Vikings game was one of those nine games — the last time the purple and gold won or lost by more than one possession was Week 2. However, this win against the Cardinals feels much different to me than the one score victories over the Lions, Bears, and Saints. Unlike those three teams, the Cardinals aren’t one of this year’s bottom dwellers and actually field a competent team each week, which makes the close win much more respectable. Additionally, for the first time this season, I was confident that the Vikings would win the game all the way through — even when the Cardinals pulled within two and after Greg Joseph missed the extra point. Dalvin Cook and his first 100 yard game of the season was a big reason why.
Watching last Sunday’s game, the entire team just looked different coming out of the bye week. There was finally no blatantly obvious exploitable flaw, the defense came up with two takeaways and shut down the run, and the offense looked quite smooth. Most of all, the team inspired confidence. They still aren’t reaching their full potential in the passing game, but the run game efficiency was fantastic. Cook has certainly had a few statistically solid games this season, but I think most Vikings fans would say that he has not looked the same as he has in previous years. This was a notable issue, as a strong run game has been crucial to the success of the Kirk Cousins-led Vikings in the past. That all changed this week — Cook showed the burst and explosiveness that he is known for, and the Vikings’ offense looked like a contender’s.
While it wasn’t the 200+ yards and 2 TDs Cook has dropped in the past, averaging over 5.6 yards per touch on what was previously a top 10 defense in rush yards allowed is a step towards that type of dominance — and may be his peak this season due to Kevin O’Connell’s tendency to give Alexander Mattison more touches as well as pass the ball more than Mike Zimmer did. That said, a similarly efficient and confidence-inspiring performance is all the Vikings will need in the playoffs. The Vikings loss came in a game in which Cook rushed for a measly 17 yards; granted, he only received 6 carries due to the game script. Not coincidentally, Jefferson was held to 48 yards.
Evidently, there exists a formula to stop Justin Jefferson — Darius Slay had his number for the most part in the aforementioned Philadelphia game, and even Detroit’s disgrace of a defense limited Jefferson to 3 catches for 14 yards. There also exists a formula to stop Dalvin Cook. What does not exist is a way to stop both Jefferson and Cook when they are hot, not to mention the Vikings’ other weapons. If the Vikings intend to make a deep playoff run, or perhaps even a Super Bowl run, it will not be on the back of a defense that hangs around league average or even on the backs of good but not elite weapons like the 2022 version of Adam Thielen and newly acquired TE T.J. Hockenson. Success against an elite defense such as the Eagles, Cowboys, or a healthy 49ers team typically requires a team’s offensive studs to show out and take over the game. The question is whether Cook is still capable of those dominant performances — Jefferson clearly is.
All of this is to say that Jefferson and Cook need to play elite complementary football in order to win big games, especially in the postseason. No one on the planet doubts that Jefferson can go off any time, any place — the same cannot be said for Cook. Cook is the lynchpin that the 2022 Minnesota Vikings depend on. If this efficient, 141 scrimmage yard performance ends up an outlier, it’s safe to write the Vikings off against the first elite defense they play. Philadelphia showed that Cousins blindly throwing in Jefferson’s general direction is not a winning formula against teams not called the Saints or Bears. Cousins is not Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes; he needs a strong running game to take the pressure off of his shoulders. Same with Jefferson: When defenses can key in on him with double or even triple teams, he can’t consistently overcome it. He isn’t superhuman. Cook plays a more important role this season than perhaps even he has realized with all of the attention on Jefferson and now new acquisition Hockenson. In an unexpected development, even the new look, high scoring, pass heavy Vikings’ success will depend on the running game.