The Minnesota Vikings again lacked the late-game touch that was so golden for them last season.
Justin Herbert had the firm grip and the let-it-rip approach for the Los Angeles Chargers all game long.
Herbert passed for 405 yards and three touchdowns and the Chargers kept Kirk Cousins out of the end zone twice in the last three minutes to preserve a wild 28-24 victory over the winless Vikings on Sunday.
“There were just so many things in that game that happened that tested the patience of our team, the connection of our team,” coach Brandon Staley said. "All three phases just hung tough.”
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Kenneth Murray Jr. made the game-sealing interception in the end zone with 7 seconds left, snagging a ball that deflected off the chest of diving tight end T.J. Hockenson. On Minnesota's previous possession, Michael Davis knocked down Cousins' fourth-down throw to Justin Jefferson at the goal line.
“It was a hard-fought win,” Herbert said. “Certainly not the way we drew it up.”
The Vikings (0-3) had their final chance thanks to Staley's bold choice to go for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 24. Joshua Kelley was stonewalled in the hole by Jonathan Bullard, giving the Vikings the ball with 1:47 left. They sputtered through six plays, aided by an illegal use of hands penalty on Davis, before a fourth-down pass to Hockenson gave them first-and-goal at the 6.
With no timeouts left, Cousins had trouble hearing the play call and 29 seconds ticked off the clock until the next snap instead of the Vikings opting for a spike. Cousins' seemingly safe throw to Hockenson's outside shoulder away from the defenders still got picked off, the type of bad break that rarely went against the Vikings in 2022 while they set the NFL record by going 11-0 in one-score games.
“I hate the feeling of losing whether it’s a football game or it’s a board game,” said Jefferson, who had seven catches for 149 yards.
Keenan Allen not only set career highs with 205 yards and 18 catches, but he threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams on a trick play that gave the Chargers (1-2) a 21-10 third-quarter lead.
Herbert, who went 40 for 47 and set the franchise record with 213 consecutive attempts and counting without an interception, hit Donald Parham Jr. for two first-half touchdowns, including a fourth-and-goal grab with 50 seconds left before halftime.
In a dizzying final stretch between two potent offenses and teams in desperate situations, Cousins converted a fourth-down pass for a 36-yard touchdown to K.J. Osborn late in the third quarter. Then he hit Jefferson for a 52-yard score and a 24-21 lead with 11:20 left.
Herbert came right back with a 30-yard touchdown pass Joshua Palmer with 8:05 left. Akayleb Evans almost made a diving interception, but the ball slipped through his hands, off his helmet and in the air to Palmer at the goal line.
The Vikings gave up 259 rushing yards last week to Philadelphia, but with Austin Ekeler out again, the Chargers abandoned the running game. And why not? Herbert has the most completions in history for a player’s first four seasons, with a whopping 14 games to go to build on that total.
In this game between 2022 playoff teams, Staley got the edge on his friend Kevin O'Connell, who worked with him on the Los Angeles Rams' staff in 2020.
For Staley and the Chargers, encouragement can be found in the fact that 31 teams have started 0-2 and made the playoffs since the NFL expanded the field in 1990. Cincinnati did so last season.
For the Vikings, the road looks rough. Only four teams since 1990 have made the playoffs after an 0-3 start: the Chargers (1992), Detroit (1995), Buffalo (1998) and Houston (2018).
“We dug ourselves a hole, and we’ve got a long way to climb out,” said Cousins, who's the fifth player in history with at least 325 passing yards and two touchdowns in the first three games of a season, joining Tom Brady (2011), Ryan Fitzpatrick (2018), Patrick Mahomes (2019) and Derek Carr (2021).
The Vikings have fumbled seven times this season and lost them all. Hockenson was the latest culprit, surrendering a promising first possession at the 21-yard line as Alohi Gilman wrestled the ball away in a crowd of defenders. The Vikings have a minus-seven turnover ratio, the worst in the league.
Chargers: S Derwin James (hamstring) and Williams (knee) were injured in the third quarter. In addition to Ekeler, LB Eric Kendricks (hamstring) — who played eight seasons for the Vikings — was inactive.
Vikings: Jefferson left the game for a play with calf cramps. S Josh Metellus (shoulder) aggravated an existing injury in the fourth quarter. C Garrett Bradbury (back) was out for the second straight game. OLB Marcus Davenport (ankle) was also inactive again. He has played four snaps this season.
Chargers: Host Las Vegas next Sunday.
Vikings: Visit Carolina next Sunday