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Vikings to open postseason against familiar foe

Minnesota defeated the New York Giants in dramatic fashion at U.S. Bank Stadium less than a month ago, but the stakes in Sunday's rematch will be much higher.

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Vikings hosted the New York Giants on Christmas Eve, it took a franchise-long field goal to separate the two.

Vikings kicker Greg Joseph connected on a 61-yard field goal as time expired to lift Minnesota to a 27-24 win. While the stakes were high – the Giants were still fighting for a playoff spot, and the Vikings were battling for postseason position – Sunday’s game will have a whole new feel to it.

“I think playoffs always bring an excitement that’s great to have,” said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. “I think that intensity and that sense of urgency is what makes the playoffs fun. It’s kind of a fun challenge to know that it’s win or go home.”

The Vikings will host the Giants Sunday in the NFC Wild Card playoff round after failing to reach the playoffs each of the past two seasons. Last year, Minnesota missed out on the postseason after losing eight one-score games and finishing 8-9. 

This year, the Vikings switched the script, winning all 11 one-score games they played in, including eight fourth-quarter comebacks to capture their first NFC North title in five years.

“It’s a small margin of getting in and not getting in,” said Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who finished the regular season with 1,173 yards rushing – sixth-best in the NFL. “Those games you easily lose that you win sometimes … we’ve gotten the opportunity of getting in and earning our spot in this dance, so we’ve got to take advantage, and the guys know that.”

The Giants game was one of those “small margin” games as it took a 17-point fourth quarter – and a pair of standout performances from receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson – to come away with the victory. The duo combined for 25 receptions, 242 yards and three touchdowns.

While Jefferson and Hockenson were the top targets on Christmas Eve, Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said he believes it was a product of the system.

“I think one of the reasons why I think we’re one of nine teams in NFL history to have four guys with 60 catches is because the ball moves around,” said O’Connell, who has already won more games than other any first-year coach in franchise history. “Kirk’s done a great job of finding the open man. A lot of our plays are really not designed for any one particular player – and if it doesn’t go to that player, we just move on to the next play – it’s not like that. It’s meant to be a friendly system to, not only the quarterback, but those five eligibles coming to life and getting the ball into their hands and letting them do some things with it.”

In the game against the Giants, it was especially friendly to Hockenson, who finished with a season-high 13 catches for 109 yards and two scores – his first two-touchdown game since joining the Vikings back in November.

“There wasn’t really a discussion that, ‘Hey, we’re going to feed T.J. the ball,’” said Cousins. “You just kind of go through your progressions a few times – he’s backside on a concept and you’re kind of clicking through and he gets the ball. But when the play is called and the ball is snapped, that’s not at all by design. Other times he’s (the) No. 1 (target), and he has a great opportunity to get it. So, it’s probably a mixed bag, and from week-to-week, you never know how that’s going to sort out.”

Second-year receiver K.J. Osborn has also been a beneficiary as of late, amassing 25 catches for 350 yards and two touchdowns over the last four games. While he was quiet against the Giants – three catches for 17 yards – he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of yardage in two of the final four games to close out the regular season.

“He’s certainly a great player and really has earned the right to have the ball thrown his way,” said Cousins of Osborn. “Sometimes it’s just because that’s where your reads take you … but ultimately, he’s just a great football player that we want to get the football to.”

Osborn’s recent emergence could be vital, especially if the Giants put extra emphasis on Jefferson and Hockenson after the two took over the game the last time the two teams met less than a month ago.

“I think it’s similar, probably, to playing a divisional opponent, where you’re seeing them a second time,” said Cousins, who went 34 of 48 for 299 yards and three touchdowns against the Giants. “It’s a good challenge and it’s a good defense and will require a lot of preparation.”

One thing Cousins and the Vikings won't have to prepare for – at least for one week – is playing in a hostile environment. For first time since the "Minneapolis Miracle" in January of 2018, the Vikings will be accompanied by a home crowd in the postseason.

"It's going to be an electric environment," Cook said. "Vikings (fans) make it as loud as they can, so let's go win the football game."

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