If Sunday’s 3-0 win is any indication, the rest of the season won’t be pretty for Vikings

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Sunday in Las Vegas was always going to serve as a temperature gauge for the Minnesota Vikings. At last, wide receiver Justin Jefferson was returning. If he and Josh Dobbs could get on the same page, maybe Minnesota’s season wasn’t lost, after all. Playing the 5-7 Raiders with their own issues to work out could set the tone for how the Vikings finish out the season.

By the end of the afternoon, it did. Just not in the way Minnesota would have hoped.

The Vikings won the game — even if it was only by a 3-0 margin. In the process, however, they may have again lost Jefferson for a significant amount of time. 

Jefferson trotted out on the field for the Vikings’ first offensive play of the game but then did an about-face and retreated to the sideline in what almost served as a greeting to the vast amounts of purple and gold in the stands. The next play, he came in — this time made it to the huddle — and Dobbs took a shot on an out-route to Jefferson at the sticks. It was broken up.

It took another quarter before Jefferson got another target, but this time he made it count. He picked up 12 yards and a Vikings first down, which had been hard to come by thus far. Three plays later, he did it again — this time on a 15-yard gain. But he took a big hit in the process from Raiders safety Marcus Epps. It was one of those dangerous throws that left the receiver in harm’s way if he caught it. Dobbs was desperate to get Jefferson the ball, and why not? He’s their best player.

But it ended up knocking Jefferson out of the game after only 13 snaps.

Jefferson was diagnosed with a chest injury and taken to a local hospital as a precautionary measure. He received X-rays and other testing to check for any serious internal injuries but was released soon after. He came back to the stadium by the end of the game and traveled home with the team.

“I do know that he received X-rays and I’m not entirely sure that it has anything to do with his ribs,” O’Connell said after the game. “I was just told kind of chest, internal [injury] making darn sure that we had ruled out anything serious … As far as I’m concerned, what I’ve been told, we looked like we avoided any significant thing there.”

Jefferson was in the game for just enough time to give the abundance of Vikings fans in attendance some hope. After his first catch, the crowd roared as if we were in U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis instead of the Death Star in the desert. Before they realized Jefferson was hurt, they had roared again for the first down and some semblance of a functioning offense. Jefferson was in and out of the injury tent quickly and walked to the locker room after that with seemingly no limitations.. It didn’t look like anything to worry about it. Until it was.

‘This is football’ – Vikings’ Harrison Phillips speaks on 3-0 win over Raiders

'This is football' – Vikings' Harrison Phillips speaks on 3-0 win over Raiders

The game was so clearly tailored to feature Jefferson, O’Connell yet again went into scramble mode to adjust to his star receiver’s absence.

“You put together a plan getting him back and you’re trying to feature him as much as possible,” said O’Connell. “Then there’s a lot of football left where guys had had reps in certain spots and now we’re moving, everbody’s kind of shifting around and you feel comfortable with their execution level but it’s going to kind of be a multi-guy move type of process.”

That trend continued for Minnesota the rest of the way. Dobbs tried to get something, anything going as the offense was adjusting around him. But even coming off a bye week, the injuries inexplicably piled up, too. Brian O’Neill went down in the second quarter, staying in the injury tent until halftime and walking out in the opposite direction with trainers. At the start of the fourth quarter, he was officially ruled out with an ankle injury.

Then there was the injury to left guard Dalton Risner. And Alexander Mattison. Risner’s replacement, Blake Brandel, incurred a false start penalty promptly after taking over for Risner. The Vikings punted.

Then, there was the score.

It was all zeroes headed into the fourth quarter, as the Allegiant Stadium press-box PA announcer said over the loudspeaker. The first score by either team didn’t come until 1:57 left in the game, when Nick Mullens replaced Josh Dobbs and led the Vikings on their first scoring drive of the afternoon. It ended in a 36-yard Greg Joseph field goal that put Minnesota up 3-0. 

It was an insurmountable lead.

The Vikings defense was quick to all but put the game away when Ivan Pace Jr. came up with Minnesota’s second takeaway of the game, intercepting Vegas quarterback Aidan O’Connell on his first pass following the field goal. The undrafted rookie was calling the defense in linebacker Jordan Hicks’ absence and his team pitched a shutout. Pace himself had 13 tackles, a sack and the interception. 

He certifiably has that dog in him.

It was the Vikings’ first shutout since 2017. They held the Raiders to just 202 total yards. They had eight total first downs. They kept O’Connell’s turnover margin streak alive. The Vikings are now still undefeated when winning the turnover battle under O’Connell. 

The Raiders burned through all of their timeouts following the interception, Minnesota ran the clock down to 18 seconds and on fourth-and-4, they lined up for a field goal but instead, Joseph punted the ball to try and pin the Raiders. It didn’t quite work but Las Vegas’ one final play ran the clock all the way down and the Vikings improved to 7-6 on the season.

Do the Vikings have a few more wins up their sleeve? With how well the defense is playing, they just might. It isn’t often an offense scores three points and the team wins. But what does that mean for the final four weeks of the year? 

“We’re a week-to-week offense at this point,” O’Connell said.

This team is badly injured and limping through each game (literally). And it’s not just a flesh wound. 

It’s going to be a struggle the rest of the way, no matter how things go for Minnesota. But they can count incremental improvements as wins before ultimately figuring out what to do at the quarterback position. The defense has come along tremendously under Flores. First-round pick Jordan Addison is getting valuable reps to make him a true complement to Jefferson. The coaching staff can practice their in-game adjustments.

It should spell an excellent 2024 season for Minnesota. It just won’t be pretty until then.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.



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