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Captain Comeback: How Kirk Cousins, Vikings overcame long odds to win NFC North

MINNEAPOLIS — Patrick Peterson walked into the Minnesota Vikings locker room at halftime Saturday and fired off one of the most absurd challenges in NFL history: “We need five touchdowns to win this game.”

The Vikings trailed 33-0. Some players weren’t sure if Peterson was serious or speaking with gallows humor. In this century, after all, NFL teams have scored five touchdowns after halftime in roughly three out of every 1,000 games.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, however, overheard him and said he was moved.

“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” an exhausted O’Connell said moments after his team did exactly what Peterson asked — and then some. The Vikings outscored the Indianapolis Colts by 36 points the rest of the way to earn a 39-36 overtime victory, capping the largest comeback in NFL history.

Accomplishing such a feat requires not only a brain-twisting series of plays, but also cooperation from a stunned opponent. Colts quarterback Matt Ryan had been there before, having lost a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI while playing for the Atlanta Falcons, but there was little he could do to stop the onslaught.

Here’s how the game unfolded through the eyes of the players and coaches who made it happen.

The Colts built their halftime lead by returning a blocked punt and an interception for touchdowns. The Vikings committed two turnovers and were outgained 209 yards to 82. Thunderous boos rained down on the Vikings as they went to the locker room prior to Peterson’s sharp words. The Vikings chances of winning at halftime: 1%.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins: They were kicking our tails.

Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson: I will say this: There was no letting down. No one was putting their head down and just forfeiting.

O’Connell: Although I felt it and heard some of the rightly-due displeasure with our team in the first half, the moment that we could get some enthusiasm back in this building, no matter how farfetched it seemed that we could come back, our fans [would be] right there.

Peterson: My mentality didn’t change when we were down 33-0. Came into halftime, what did I say? Duke [Shelley]? I said we need five touchdowns to win the game.

Vikings cornerback Duke Shelley, standing next to Peterson in the locker room: Yup, five touchdowns.

Peterson: That’s what I said. We need five touchdowns. Take it one at a time. Believe in one another. And let’s see what happens.

Cousins: I didn’t know if [Peterson] was being sarcastic or what. When I looked at him, he was serious. I think his point was, ‘We’re not going to let them score anymore. So if you can get five touchdowns, that will be good enough.’

O’Connell: It was a nice little moment for me to lead right in off of. I said, ‘Pat, you’re exactly right.’ That’s what we needed at the time. It was probably the most motivated I’ve been to kind of challenge our players.

Colts coach Jeff Saturday: When we walked out at halftime, I told them, ‘This team … nine of their games have been one-score games.’ We didn’t overlook them. We understood how explosive this offense is, how many points they put up.

The Vikings made a major second-half adjustment. After blitzing Ryan on four of 17 dropbacks in the first half, they blitzed him on 12 of 20 thereafter. Meanwhile, the Vikings scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. The third, an 8-yard pass to Justin Jefferson, made it 36-21 with 12:53 left in regulation. Vikings chances of winning: 2%.

Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks: We had a good plan in the second half. We had some adjustments and put some pressure on him for sure.

O’Connell: When we were able to get to two scores … I just knew it was possible just because the momentum we were building. … It was about that moment, then it was just about kind of making sure you don’t look too big picture any particular moment in that second half. That would do a disservice to reality.

Cousins: When we cut it to 15, that’s when I felt like maybe there were 12 minutes left, something like that, this is right there.

Peterson: My favorite moment of the whole deal, I’ll probably have to say was JJ’s touchdown. That was a hell of a route. … It was a third down and we needed that. Justin always finds a way to come through, especially when you are going up against the best DBs to ever play in [Stephon Gilmore].

Jefferson: I had been running what we call Omaha 5 and out the whole day. I kind of knew that me acting like I was going to go back in and then hitting it back out, I was going to get him. It was all about the preparation, being in practice, running the same route constantly.

Gilmore: He made some plays, I made some plays. That’s what happens when two great players are going at it.

Colts defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo: We were just like, ‘Come on, step on their throats.’ But it just [shows] you it’s football. They got momentum and they’re playing at home.

Colts guard Quenton Nelson: [The crowd] was probably the loudest, honestly, I mean with the momentum. And they stayed the whole game. They were a big part of it.

The Vikings pulled to within one score on a 1-yard touchdown pass to receiver Adam Thielen with 5:34 remaining. Then it appeared they had tied the game on a fumble recovery and return by Sullivan.

Walt Anderson, NFL senior vice president of officiating: The original ruling on the field was that the runner that was in the pile was down by contact. Subsequently, a Minnesota player got it back. We had a look and could tell right away that the runner was still up when the ball came loose. We had a good view that it was a clear recovery by [Sullivan].

But the ruling on the field was the runner was down by contact. There was a subsequent loose ball and then a recovery by Minnesota and an advance. Minnesota challenged that and by the time they challenged, we had good views. We had an expedited review to announce that it was a fumble, and we had a clear recovery. But all we could do was give Minnesota the ball at the spot of the recovery.

Sullivan: I need an explanation for that. The ball was just lying on the ground. I picked it up and ran with it, and they said the whistle blew.

Kendricks: We regrouped but that was so hard to come back from. To get everybody on the same page and just not worry about it and just go back and work. It was clear. It was clear that it was out. It was clear that we scored with it. And it’s unfortunate that it didn’t go that way. It pissed us off just enough.

The Vikings didn’t score on the ensuing possession. The Colts moved the ball to the Vikings’ 36-yard line, but the Vikings stopped Ryan’s quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1. The Vikings tied the game on the next play, a 64-yard screen pass to receiver Dalvin Cook with 2:15 remaining. Vikings’ chances of winning: 43%.

Saturday: I felt really good about the call. We’ve converted a bunch this season, and I felt like we had the matchup we wanted. It would have closed the game out, ended the game.

O’Connell: That screen [to Cook] was a season-defining kind of play in that moment where you had to have it.

Cousins: It was Dalvin showing why he’s Dalvin Cook. To be able to not only get a big play there but finish with a touchdown. … I thought that play encapsulated a lot of who Dalvin is. I said to him in the locker room, ‘I’ve been in a front row seat for the best plays in your career over the last five years. That might have been my favorite.’

The Vikings would have clinched the NFC North with a tie or win, and initially O’Connell was cautious in overtime before Joseph’s 40-yard field goal won it with three seconds left.

O’Connell: It was very much in my head. That’s why the last time we got the ball, we started the drive out with a run. All I wanted to see is if we could get a new set of downs. Can we eat some clock and then have the mindset when we get the first first down. I trust Kirk wholeheartedly in those moments.

Cousins, who threw for a career-high 460 yards: I didn’t know all this, and like 10 seconds before we get the ball back, Chris O’Hara, our quarterback coach, goes, ‘We’re going to run it to start. A tie wins the division.’ I looked at him like, ‘It would have been nice to know that at least 10 minutes ago, maybe three days ago. I’m jogging on the field thinking, ‘A tie wins the division.’ You have options here.

He called the run. The second call didn’t come in very quick. I’m kind of sitting there like, ‘Maybe he’s going for the tie.’ Then he called the dropback, so I thought, ‘No, he’s going to go for it.’ … We were still able to get down there and win the game, which is what we wanted.

The postgame locker rooms were a study in history.

Jefferson: I shed a tear a little bit just thinking about it. I’ve been in some crazy games before, but this is tops to all of them probably.

Kendricks, who choked up several times while speaking to reporters: At this point in my career, I’m really just trying to live in the moment and smell the flowers. That’s why I’m so emotional. This is exactly what I want to be doing. I’m playing in the NFL. It’s my childhood dream. We just won the division. I know how hard it is to win the division. And this is a beautiful moment. I felt everybody’s energy lift and it was inspiring to just be out there with my teammates and everybody …. no one pointing fingers. We knew the situation. It was very, very special. I’m never going to forget this.

Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin: You give it literally everything you have. You’ve been through a whole lot of adversity. We’ve been hearing everybody talk about us like we’re a punchline and we took that very personal. I think you could tell from how we came out and played. For the game to go the way it did at the end, it’s definitely a tough, tough pill to swallow.

Peterson: We’ve got two games so far this season that people are going to talk about forever, including our game against Buffalo. But this is by far the best. To be down 33-0 in with eight minutes to go in the third quarter. It’s remarkable.

Cousins, whose son Cooper joined him during a postgame press conference: It’s hard for me to enjoy the process. I want to enjoy the product. What I don’t want to do is get to the end of my career, Cooper has grown older and you look back and you say, ‘I missed it. I didn’t enjoy it while I was going through it.’

I want to play long enough for him to remember it, really be a part of it, but to look back and say, ‘I didn’t miss it while I was in it. Now that it’s over, I can say I enjoyed it and got everything out of it I could to enjoy. Moments like this, you want to enjoy.

ESPN Indianapolis Colts reporter Stephen Holder contributed to this report.

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