Stefon Diggs had not heard the news from Dallas by the time the Minnesota receiver returned to the locker room after the Vikings’ 39-10 thrashing of the Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday.
The Vikings took another big step toward the playoffs when they forced seven turnovers in a game for the 13th time in franchise history, improving to 10-4 and remaining one game behind NFC North leader Green Bay (11-3).
That step soon became a giant leap. As the Vikings completed their seventh win in nine games, the Cowboys were closing out a 44-21 victory over the Rams that dropped the Rams (8-6) two games behind Minnesota for the NFC’s second wild-card berth with two games to play.
“Um … yay?” Diggs said when informed of the Rams’ loss, his muted response reflecting the sentiment in Minnesota’s locker room. “We still have to win out. We have to keep doing what we’re doing as an offense, keep playing lights-out defense. We have a lot of football left.”
The Vikings can clinch a playoff spot with one victory in their final two games, both at home, against Green Bay on Dec. 23 or the Chicago Bears on Dec. 29. One Rams loss, either at San Francisco on Saturday or against Arizona on Dec. 29, also would clinch a playoff spot for Minnesota.
The only way the Rams can reach the playoffs is if they win their final two games and the Vikings, who are undefeated at home, lose twice. The teams would finish with 10-6 records, but the Rams would have the tiebreaker edge because of a better record against NFC opponents.
“It’s still up for grabs,” said Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed 19 of 25 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown. “We’ve got to finish strong. It’s a two-game season now. We’ve put ourselves in a position to have a lot to play for. Ten wins is a good place to be, but there’s a better place to be — 11 or 12 wins.”
That would put the Vikings in line for an NFC North title and, at the very least, a playoff opener at home. Green Bay, which beat the Chicago Bears 21-13 Sunday, defeated Minnesota 21-16 in Week 2.
“It would be a big help to have a home playoff game, but honestly, it’s first things first,” Cousins said. “What’s important is beating the Packers, and we’re not going to spend time and energy thinking about all that’s out of our control.”
The Vikings made themselves at home Sunday. About 80% of the sellout crowd of 25,446 wore purple jerseys, periodically singing the Vikings’ “Skol” chant while clapping rhythmically above their heads.
Loud chants of “Dee-fense” filled the stands when the Chargers had the ball, giving the Vikings a decided road-field advantage.
“That was like a home game,” said Diggs, who caught four passes for 76 yards, including a game-high 46-yard reception to set up a fourth-quarter touchdown. “I didn’t see any baby blue jerseys. I saw a lot of purple, and it was kind of loud in there. It had us fired up and ready to go.”
It took nearly 30 minutes before the Vikings really took off. The Chargers trailed 12-10 late in the second quarter and threatened to take the lead when Melvin Ingram intercepted a Cousins screen pass near midfield, and Philip Rivers drove the Chargers to the Vikings 26.
Minnesota, tied for sixth in the league with 20 takeaways entering the game, forced another turnover when end Danielle Hunter sacked Rivers for a 10-yard loss and Rivers fumbled. Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was unable to pick up the ball with linebacker Eric Kendricks, the former UCLA standout, wrapped around his waist, and the ball squirted toward the sideline.
End Ifeadi Odenigbo picked up the ball and rumbled 56 yards to the end zone, getting a key block by Hunter on tackle Russell Okung for a 19-10 lead by Minnesota even seconds before halftime.
The Chargers turned the ball over on the first play of a second half in which they were outscored 20-0. The Vikings pulled away despite losing Dalvin Cook, the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, to a shoulder injury early in the third quarter, the severity of which was unknown after the game.
“That really changed the complexion of the game,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said of Odenigbo’s scoop and score. “They probably kick a field goal. Call it a 10-point swing. It’s a big deal.”
Especially for Odenigbo, a seventh-round pick of the Vikings from Northwestern in 2017 who was cut that season and brought back this season. Odenigbo attended high school in Ohio but said he grew up a fan of Rivers and former Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
“It was pretty cool,” Odenigbo said. “That was my first-ever touchdown. I never got one in high school or college. Being able to do it against the Chargers and in L.A. is neat.”