MINNEAPOLIS — They saved the best for last.
This was Thursday night. Before the Minnesota Vikings gutted their way past the New England Patriots 33-26. Before the ball was even kicked off.
Spotlights fluttered throughout U.S. Bank Stadium. Purple and yellow reflected off the arena scoreboards. All at once, with the aptly satiated crowd roaring, the video board showed an image of the tunnel.
Through it walked Justin Jefferson.
Justin Jefferson introduced at US Bank Stadium. Awesome atmosphere for a big game. pic.twitter.com/5vP8CfXWwv
— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) November 25, 2022
He cupped his hands behind his ears, seemingly asking for more noise, more energy and more support. And if he proved anything with his nine-catch, 139-yard performance — on prime time, amid the Thanksgiving spectacle and against a Bill Belichick-coached team devoted to eliminating him from the game — it’s that he deserves it all.
A loaded contract? Sure.
Best-receiver-in-the-league honors? Why not?
The Most Valuable Player award?
“Yeah,” Vikings veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “Yeah. MVP. He’s having that type of year where he should be considered.”
History tells us it is going to be an uphill battle. Only 19 non-quarterbacks have ever received the award. None of them has been a wide receiver.
Last year, Cooper Kupp became the first wide receiver to even receive a vote since 1998, when another talented wideout played for the Vikings. His name is Randy Moss. He, too, starred on Thanksgiving.
That brings us back to Thursday night. To No. 18 in purple. And to the absurdity of what he is accomplishing. Through 11 games this season, he has amassed 81 catches for 1,232 yards. Paced out over 17 games, Jefferson is projected to finish with 125 catches and 1,904 receiving yards.
But it’s also the way he’s doing it and the defenses he’s navigating. Thursday night was a perfect example.
Against the Patriots, Jefferson faced “a lot of different double teams,” as quarterback Kirk Cousins described it. “The long third down that he caught was a double.”
The long third down happened late in the first half. Jefferson started from the slot on the line of scrimmage. Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones, one of the league’s best defensive backs this season, stood across from Jefferson and was shaded on the receiver’s right shoulder.
After Cousins caught the snap, Jefferson blurred past Jones. As part of the plan, Patriots safety Devin McCourty slid over to help. Jefferson, though, jetted away from him. Cousins lofted the ball up, and Jefferson high-pointed the pass the way he has many times this season. The catch catapulted him into the history books as he broke Moss’ record for the most receiving yards through three seasons in an NFL career. (And he still has six games to go in the regular season.)
How does one defend Justin Jefferson?
With this catch, Jefferson passes the great Randy Moss for most receiving yards in the first three seasons of a career.
? @NFL | @Vikings pic.twitter.com/VjLxy1aWyS
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) November 25, 2022
Jefferson stands 6-foot-1. He is not your prototypical jump-ball receiver, which may be why Cousins initially seemed unwilling to accept the risk of lobbing it in Jefferson’s direction amid coverage. Jefferson, however, has proven that he can mitigate that risk.
“When that ball is in the air,” he said, “it’s mine.”
The numbers confirm his claim. So far this season, Jefferson has caught 73.3 percent of his targets 15 yards or more down the field. That’s the highest mark through the first 11 games of a season since 2000, per TruMedia. The next best? Roddy White in 2010, who caught 68.8 percent of his targets.
Reflective of Jefferson’s reliability on jump balls is that he hauled in another critical one Thursday night. This one came in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 26. Jefferson lined up wide to the left. Again, Jones stood across from him, but this time he was shaded to Jefferson’s left side.
After Cousins received the snap, Jefferson sprang into his stride. He got past Jones. McCourty drifted over again. Jefferson eyed him in his peripheral vision but knew the catch would secure another red zone trip. He hung on, popped up and flexed his muscles.
HE IS HIM ??? pic.twitter.com/TZx8WafjOP
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 25, 2022
These days, his teammates aren’t even surprised by ridiculous catches like that.
“That’s just normal now,” Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter said. “He’s just amazing. He’s always doing new stuff. That’s just him.”
For years, tight end T.J. Hockenson had watched Jefferson from afar with the Detroit Lions. He was wowed. Three weeks into his time with the Vikings, he talks about Jefferson as if he’s a different breed of human being.
“What he does is very uncommon,” Hockenson said. “It doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t. To have a guy like that out there playing is special.”
You may not need any more statistics to comprehend his greatness, but here’s another anyway: This season, Jefferson has accounted for 43.1 percent of the Vikings’ passing yards, which ranks first in the NFL by a wide margin. The distance between him and No. 2 (Tyreek Hill’s 37.5 percent) is the same as between Hill and the No. 9 receiver (Terry McLaurin’s 31.4 percent). To take it a step further, Jefferson’s percentage of the Vikings’ passing yards would be the highest of any receiver since Brandon Marshall with the Bears in 2012 (45.7 percent).
“He means a whole heck of a lot to our offense, to our team,” first-year Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said Thursday night.
“He’s one of absolutely the most special players I’ve ever been around as a player or coach,” O’Connell added. “He tends to show up and be ready to go every time we put on the uniform and go out there.”
He was ready in Week 1 against the Packers, torching their zone defense for 11 catches, 184 yards and two touchdowns. He was ready in Week 4 in London, counteracting the ways the Eagles and Lions had largely shut him down, amassing 13 catches for 147 yards. He was ready in Week 8 against the Cardinals when he reached over a defender for a third-down catch. And Week 9 versus the Commanders, when he skied for another ball in the end zone. The Buffalo game in Week 10? It symbolized all that he meant to this Vikings team.
Justin Jefferson immense as Vikings outlast Bills in ‘craziest game I’ve been a part of’
Then, of course, there was Thursday night. Jefferson had been frustrated with the way his team played against the Cowboys last weekend. He looked for ways he could adjust. As he has all season, O’Connell worked alongside him, putting Jefferson in motion and moving him around. He caught multiple passes on the team’s first drive, another touchdown drive, which set the tone for the entire night.
We’re all Griddying after that one.@JJettas2 @LAHGriddy2x
?: @SNFonNBC pic.twitter.com/ju7BN2iO9B
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 25, 2022
The Patriots double-teamed him. He weaved his way through defenders, catching passes and eating up extra yardage. His production remained elite.
“These are the types of games I love the most,” he said. “Thursday nights. Prime time. The whole world is watching. No better time to go off.”
No better time, either, to begin the MVP conversation.
Peterson said he understands that the MVP tends to be a quarterback award. But he has had a front-row seat to NFL games for more than a decade, and he knows what he’s been watching.
Thursday was just another layer to the tapestry of this season. Peterson understood the record Jefferson broke. Peterson saw how Belichick’s defense schemed to stop him. Peterson heard the way the crowd responded when Jefferson entered the arena.
When they saved the best for last.
(Photo: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images)