Was Vikings-Bills best game of NFL season? Explaining the ending

What, you thought my Monday column was going to be about the Saints-Steelers game? After Sunday's 33-30 victory by the Vikings in Buffalo, it was impossible to consider talking about anything else.

With close competition from the first Falcons-Panthers game in late October, Vikings-Bills has to be considered the best game of the 2022 NFL season. It could turn out to be a pivotal contest in playoff races across both conferences.

In lieu of more formal, well-arranged thoughts, I was left with a series of questions and takeaways from a breathless final 20 minutes of football. I want to hit them and what this game tells us about where the Bills and Vikings stand in an NFL where only five teams have more than six wins through Week 10:

Jump to a question:
Did Jefferson make the best catch ever?
Who won the Jefferson-Diggs trade?
Is Cousins playing any differently?
Are the Vikings great or just lucky?
What's wrong with the Bills?
What else should I know about this game?

The ending to that fourth quarter was unbelievable, right?

It was! Great endings are in the eye of the beholder, of course, but that final minute was particularly unlikely and spectacular, according to ESPN's win expectancy model. When the Vikings failed on their fourth-and-goal sneak attempt from the 1-yard line with 50 seconds left in the game, the Bills were basically a lock to take home a victory, with a win expectancy of 99.9%. And when they promptly fumbled the ball away on a failed handoff to the Vikings for a defensive touchdown, Josh Allen & Co. were left with just a 5% chance of taking home a victory.

ESPN has win expectancy data going back through 2007. By this model, in terms of winning the game, the fumbled exchange between Allen and Mitch Morse was the worst offensive play any team has run during that 15-year span. The infamous Seahawks interception at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX against the Patriots obviously comes to mind, but even that wasn't as dramatic in terms of winning a single game, because Seattle still needed to get another yard and then stop the Patriots. That's much harder than simply snapping the ball and falling forward.

By play WPA, this was the seventh-most damaging play any team has been involved with over that span. The list is otherwise a series of defensive disasters:

There was no coming back from any of those plays for those teams. What makes the end of the fourth quarter in this game even more remarkable is the Bills just hopped back onto the field and marched down for a tying field goal. This is the first time since 2012 that two teams each had a win expectancy of 5% or less in the final minute of a game and sent it to overtime, following a Jaguars-Vikings game in Week 1 that featured big plays by Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder.

Was it the greatest regular-season game I've ever seen? Maybe not; I'm still partial to Chiefs-Rams in 2018, which had four lead changes in the fourth quarter and a combined 105 points from two devastating offenses. I won't even mention that playoff game against the Chiefs out of empathy for grieving Bills fans, either, but that's not to take anything away from how entertaining the end of this game was for neutral observers.

OK, but wasn't that the greatest catch you've ever seen?

I think so? Put it this way: If there's clearly a better catch than the one Justin Jefferson made to extend this game, I would really like to see it. Jefferson's ridiculous one-handed grab was like the child of two legendary catches from the past, combining Odell Beckham Jr.'s star-making reception against the Cowboys in 2014 with David Tyree's helmet catch in Super Bowl XLI against the Patriots in 2008.

The Tyree catch is a little different. In terms of spectacular feats of physical tools, the Jefferson snag is better than the Beckham catch. The then-Giants star had to make that reception at an impossible angle -- and he was being interfered with during the play -- but his momentum was at least taking him toward the ball, and he had a clear path to the catch. Jefferson had to turn his body in the other direction while the ball was in the air before grabbing it away with one hand from safety Cam Lewis, who was closing on the pass with both hands. Bills fans cheered for the first couple of seconds after the play because they thought it was an interception before they realized Jefferson had brought it down.

Compared to the Beckham catch, this one meant more, too. Beckham's score gave the 3-7 Giants seven points in the second quarter of a game they lost to the Cowboys. Jefferson's catch came on fourth-and-18 for the now-8-1 Vikings, who would have otherwise handed the ball back to the Bills in an extremely compromising scenario. I recognize the Bills did fumble after they actually got the ball back, but that fumble is much less likely in the middle of the field. If Jefferson hadn't come through, the Vikings likely would have gotten the ball back with about 15 seconds to go, deep inside their own territory, needing a touchdown.

I know this is a great catch because it overshadowed some other ridiculous receptions on Sunday. Stefon Diggs had an incredible catch on third-and-15. In Los Angeles, Rondale Moore made what would be the catch of the week on most Sundays, bringing in a fourth-and-3 lob from Colt McCoy with one hand for a 26-yard reception against the Rams. It might as well have never happened. Don't time the greatest catch of your life to coincide with Jefferson's.

What's even more impressive is that Jefferson delivered more than just one spectacular catch. The third-year star finished with 10 catches on 16 targets for 193 yards and a touchdown. Eight of those catches produced first downs, and a ninth appeared to be a winning score before getting overturned on review. Those catches also came with a historically impressive degree of difficulty:

Does this mean the Vikings won the Jefferson-for-Diggs trade?

No one play answers that question, but let's avoid the cop-out answer of "they both won" and pick a winner. This wasn't originally a one-for-one swap, but it turned out as much: In March 2020, the Bills sent their first-round pick in the 2020 draft and three other selections to the Vikings for Diggs and a seventh-rounder. Minnesota used that pick on Jefferson in April's draft, but the other selections didn't amount to much. The most notable player from the trade is cornerback Dane Jackson, whom the Bills drafted with that seventh-rounder.

Since the deal, Jefferson and Diggs rank Nos. 1 and 2 in receiving yardage. They've run virtually the same number of routes. The question of who has been better depends on what you're looking for in a top receiver:

Jefferson has been more explosive, generating more yards on fewer targets. Diggs has commanded a larger target share and produced more first downs and touchdowns. You might argue you would prefer Diggs if you wanted a first down or Jefferson if you wanted an explosive play. Either way, the gap doesn't amount to much.

If that's the case, though, it seems obvious the Vikings got the better end of the deal. For one, Diggs has gotten to spend those two years with Allen as his quarterback. Allen has flourished and undoubtedly improved in part because Diggs is in the lineup, but Jefferson (and before him Diggs) has made Kirk Cousins better, too. In a vacuum, just about every NFL observer would argue that Allen is a better quarterback than Cousins. Jefferson also is 5 years younger, making him a better long-term asset for his franchise.

On top of that, Jefferson's contract has been much cheaper. With the former LSU star on a rookie deal for the first three years of his NFL career, Jefferson has cost the Vikings only about $10.7 million between 2020 and 2022. Diggs earned $28.5 million between 2020 and 2021 before signing an extension with the Bills this past offseason, adding $24.6 million to the total. Jefferson will make up some of that difference when he signs a massive extension after the season, but the Bills have paid about five times as much for Diggs' 2020-to-'22 campaigns as the Vikings have for Jefferson.

The gap between the two amounts to $14 million per season, which is money the Vikings have applied elsewhere. They might not have always spent that money wisely, but the comparison here isn't just between Diggs and Jefferson. It's between Diggs and Jefferson plus whatever else the team can get with those cost savings.

Diggs might be slightly better than Jefferson, but he can't make up the difference if it's Diggs versus Jefferson, edge rusher Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Patrick Peterson, the latter two of whom combine to make just under $11 million in 2022. If the Bills had drafted Jefferson, they might have been able to use those savings over the past three years to add more pieces in the secondary, or keep more of their offensive line depth, or sign a more imposing wide receiver in free agency than Jamison Crowder. Maybe they would've had the financial flexibility to trade for Christian McCaffrey at the deadline two weeks ago.

I'm not looking to start a fight here. The Vikings obviously would make this deal again, and the Bills don't have any regrets, either. Both teams are and should be happy with what they did. In a matchup between two similarly productive star wide receivers, though, Jefferson has been the bigger value.

Is Kirk Cousins playing at a new level?

I don't think so. Cousins made a number of big-time throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, most notably on a corner route to Jefferson to set up the first-and-goal sequence in the extra period. He scrambled for 15 yards to set up C.J. Ham's touchdown in the fourth quarter and finished the day 30-of-50 passing for 357 yards with a touchdown.

He also threw two picks, and neither was pretty. With snow still coming down in the first quarter, Cousins sailed a dig route to an open K.J. Osborn for a Christian Benford interception. Two quarters later, with the Vikings in Buffalo territory, he seemed to throw the ball by accident and tossed it directly to the aforementioned Jackson, who was gifted the easiest interception of his career. It would be difficult to find many Minnesota fans who saw that interception, which came trailing 24-10 in the third quarter, and still felt like their favorite team was destined to win this game.

By most measures, this hasn't even been an above-average Cousins season. He once was one of the league's most devastating play-action passers under coordinators Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak, but the Vikings haven't had that much success with play fakes in 2022; he is averaging 6.3 yards per play-action attempt, down from 9.4 between 2019 and 2021.

Cousins ranks 20th in the league in QBR, trailing Zach Wilson and Kyler Murray and just ahead of Matthew Stafford. His QBR of 48.6 would be his worst full-season mark in Minnesota. He has been remarkably consistent over his first four seasons in Minneapolis, posting figures between 57.7 (2021) and 61.7 (2019). Cousins already has more interceptions (eight) than he did in 2021 (seven), and the drop in his play-action success has led to a career-low 6.6 yards per attempt mark across all pass attempts.

The Vikings haven't been great on offense, but they have had stretches of greatness, and they usually come in key moments. They rank 18th in expected points added (EPA) per play during the first three quarters of the game, but they morph into a stellar offense with the game on the line, ranking fifth in EPA per play during the fourth quarter and overtime. Cousins improves from 23rd in QBR across the first three quarters to 13th.

Is that sustainable over the long term? Probably not, but there's a decent chance Cousins' level of play over the first three quarters and/or on play-action could improve over the remainder of the season. He once threw interceptions at historically high rates early in his career, but those streaks disappeared into the past when he became the full-time Washington starter in 2015.

As for the team itself? Well ...

Are the Vikings good?

Sunday's win gave both sides ammunition for their argument. If you're a Vikings believer, you saw a team fight back against one of the NFL's best teams down 17 points in the second half and win. The Vikings overcame adversity, picked up big plays when they needed, forced two critical Allen interceptions and pulled out a game in which they were seen as underdogs on a national stage against Case Keenum, let alone an MVP candidate in Allen.

If you're more of a skeptic, well, you can tell yourself an entirely different story. The Vikings fell behind by multiple touchdowns and needed one long touchdown run by Dalvin Cook to get back in the game before the greatest catch of Jefferson's life extended it. Then, after they were stuffed at the goal line, the Bills gifted them a touchdown with a botched snap. Ed Donatell's defense then failed to stop the Bills from driving for a tying field goal. While the Vikings took the lead in overtime, the Bills were driving to match or win before a mental mistake by Allen handed Minnesota yet another close victory.

I fall somewhere in the middle on this question. Pulling out a win in Buffalo is impressive, no matter how they come about that victory. Since acquiring Diggs in 2020, the Bills had been 19-4 at home and 20-3 when scoring at least 30 points. They had been 8-0 when both were true. Even if it took a well-timed fumble, this is the sort of win the Vikings can point to as the first line on their 2022 résumé.

As successful as this formula has been for Minnesota, it's not the hallmark of great teams. Teams that end up having postseason success typically don't toy with their regular-season opponents. They blow teams out. The Vikings are 8-1 and have won each of the games on their seven-game win streak by eight points or fewer. Eight-point margins aren't one-possession games since a team can't win the game on a single drive, but you get the idea: These are close games, and the Vikings have needed late scores to beat the Bills, Commanders, Lions and Saints.

Yet there's a fair number of teams that have won games this way and managed to find postseason success. The only other team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win seven consecutive games by eight points or fewer is the 2020 Chiefs, who rode their luck all the way to the Super Bowl before being torn apart by offensive line injuries and the Tampa Bay pass rush. Those Chiefs already had proved that they could dominate teams in 2019, though, so we didn't have the same conversations about their abilities.

Looking at it a different way, Minnesota has seven victories by eight points or fewer across the first nine games of its season. That's tied for the most since the merger, and the two other teams with seven such wins represent two dramatic swings. The 1987 Chargers were affected by the strike, but they went 8-1 to start the season while winning one game by more than six points. Al Saunders' team promptly lost its last six games and missed the playoffs.

On the other hand, the 2006 Colts did this same thing, and after getting back safety Bob Sanders for the playoffs, they got hot on defense and won Super Bowl XLI. The 1976 Raiders won six of their first nine games by eight points or fewer, went 13-1 and won a Lombardi. The 2003 Panthers finished 11-5 and made it to the Super Bowl. All things being equal, you're better off being a team that wins by a lot each week, but winning a bunch of close games in a season doesn't preclude a team from making a deep playoff run.

At some point, having victories in your back pocket can help overcome whatever deficiencies are on the roster. Remember 2017? The Eagles weren't this sort of team when they started 11-2, but when quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL, backup Nick Foles was forced into the lineup. Foles had a big game in a win over the Giants, but he struggled badly the next week and was benched in Week 17.

In a vacuum, an Eagles team with Foles at quarterback wouldn't have seemed like the favorite to win a Super Bowl. With all those banked victories, though, they finished with the top seed in the NFC, netting them a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the postseason. Foles struggled through a narrow win over the Falcons, but he got hot in a blowout victory over the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. You remember what happened in Super Bowl LII.

The Vikings aren't as strong of a team as those Eagles were with Wentz, but if the 2022 Eagles slip up, Cousins & Co. are best-positioned to pounce. Their chances of making it through the NFC are a lot better if they have to win two games at home as opposed to three games with at least one road trip involved.

The other crystal-clear element for the Vikings is that they believe they belong among the top teams in the league. Maybe that doesn't matter much, and if they lose to the Patriots and the Cowboys over the next two weeks, that self-belief will dissipate as quickly as it appeared. But after years of frustrating moments, missed kicks and a coaching staff that often seemed frustrated with the roster, everybody is on the same page in Minnesota. It sure looks a lot more fun to be a Vikings player this year than it did a year ago.

What's wrong with the Bills?

The Bills feel like the anti-Vikings. If Minnesota comes up with key plays when it needs them, Buffalo seems to be struggling when it needs one. There are two notable issues with this team, and it's going to take some work to fix them.

One is Allen's propensity for turning the ball over, which is becoming an even bigger issue. In last week's awards column, I mentioned that Allen had gotten away with two turnovers in the win over the Packers, but his two interceptions against the Jets had swung a close game New York's way. Allen already had eight interceptions and seven fumbles through the first half of the season, which is in a different stratosphere from the other top passers under MVP consideration.

As he would tell you himself, Allen cost the Bills the game again Sunday with turnovers. Maybe you don't fault him too much for the fumbled exchange that gave the Vikings their lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter. His interception on fourth-and-goal was a forced throw he probably wouldn't have made on a prior down, although it cost the his team the opportunity to back up the Vikings inside their own territory.

Allen's final pass of the game cannot be excused. While he got a look he liked with a Dino concept (double posts) against quarters coverage, his throw was nowhere near where it needed to be. In a situation in which a field goal ties the game and the Bills still had another down to work with, he underthrew his pass and handed Peterson a game-sealing interception. Peterson deserves credit for undercutting the pass, but Allen put a ball in a place where only the defensive back could make a play.

Until about three weeks ago, Allen arguably was the league's best quarterback inside the red zone. In addition to his significant role as a rusher, he had done an excellent job of protecting the ball. From 2018 through Week 7 of this season, he had thrown 79 touchdown passes against just two picks in the red zone. No active quarterback had a better touchdown-to-interception ratio inside the 20 over that span.

Allen now has thrown interceptions inside the red zone in each of his past three games, giving him more during that stretch than he had across his previous 67 professional appearances. The Peterson pick would be a fourth if it had come from 1 yard closer. It's not unreasonable to suggest the Bills could be 7-1-1 or even 8-1 with better decision-making from their quarterback in those spots.

It's not just the red zone, though. Allen now has more interceptions in 2022 than he did in all of 2019 (nine) or as many as he did in 2020 (10). He was lucky to get away with a pair of near-interceptions in the first half, including where a tipped pass could have been picked by one of several Vikings defenders. And it's not just Allen, as Devin Singletary fumbled away a ball on the Minnesota 27-yard line, costing the Bills another shot at points in the third quarter.

The margin for error isn't there for the Bills like it was in years past, and that's because the secondary isn't as reliable. Leslie Frazier's defense has been throttled by injuries in the back end this year, and the Bills felt it dearly Sunday.

In an ideal world, the Bills would be starting Tre'Davious White and rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam on the outside at cornerback, with Taron Johnson operating in the slot. At safety, the Bills have fielded the league's best tandem for years in the duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Everybody has injuries, but Hyde and Poyer had been healthy for the vast majority of their time together in Buffalo.

On Sunday, the only player from that five-man group in the lineup was Johnson. White is continuing to recover from the torn ACL he suffered last season, while Elam was sidelined by an ankle injury. Hyde is out for the season with a neck injury, and Poyer was forced to miss the game with a wrist ailment.

In turn, the Bills were stuck playing guys in key roles who were supposed to be inactives or practice-squad players. Their starting cornerbacks were Jackson, who had been playing about nine defensive snaps per game before White went down, and Benford, a rookie sixth-rounder. At safety, they lined up second-year sixth-round selection Damar Hamlin across from Lewis, a former undrafted free agent. The two safeties combined to play more snaps Sunday (154) than they did across the entire 2021 season (96).

The Bills are a well-coached defense, and their players are generally in the right places. At some point, though, they can't line up guys from the bottom of their roster against superstars without getting torched. Jefferson outjumping Lewis on that fourth-and-18 play is an example. He beat Jackson on a third-and-3 fade for a touchdown in the first quarter and broke a Benford tackle for a 46-yard gain. Another was the 81-yard touchdown run by Cook, where he broke a tackle on the edge by Benford and then ran past a poor angle from Lewis. With a healthy Buffalo secondary, that play is probably a 10-yard gain. Here, it was a house call.

The secondary also made sloppy mistakes. Benford wiped away a second-and-22 situation in the fourth quarter with a defensive pass interference call. He added a personal foul call on the play after the Jefferson instant-legend catch, costing the Bills 15 more yards on the most important drive of the game.

Poyer should be back soon. White's status seems murkier. The star corner was activated from PUP on Nov. 1, but he has been inactive each of the past two weeks. He wasn't on the injury report for Sunday's game, technically making him a healthy scratch, but it seems like he is still recovering from the injury he suffered last Thanksgiving. At the very least, it doesn't seem like he will be back to his Pro Bowl self until late in the season.

Is it time to be concerned about Buffalo?

There are reasons to be optimistic about what happens next. After Buffalo was the consensus top team in the AFC through most of the first two months of the year, its two-game losing streak has put it in a much more difficult position. Sunday's loss knocked the Bills out of first place in the AFC East and dropped them all the way to third; they actually are only a game out of last place in the division.

While the Bills are only a half-game out of first place in the East, they're in a vulnerable position. After losing to the Dolphins and Jets earlier this season, they are 0-2 in their division. The Dolphins and Jets are both 2-1, while the Patriots are 1-1. With the divisional record serving as the second tiebreaker after head-to-head play within the East, the Bills can't really afford many more slip-ups. Per The Upshot's model, if the Bills lose either of their rematches to the Dolphins or Jets, their odds of winning the division will drop from 47% to somewhere between 21% and 23%.

The good news for Buffalo is that it holds tiebreakers over the three other divisional leaders in the Chiefs, Ravens and Titans, so if it can get back atop the AFC East and the conference ends in some sort of tie scenario, it should be in position to win any tiebreakers. In the league's 14-team playoff format, getting the top seed in the conference is a huge competitive advantage. The Bills would get a week off and be able to play their playoff slate at home in western New York.

After facing the Chiefs, Packers, Jets and Vikings over the past four games, the schedule is about to get easier. Sean McDermott's team gets a pair of 3-6 opponents over the next two weeks in the Browns and Lions. The latter game is on Thanksgiving, which affords the Bills a much-needed mini-bye. The Patriots follow, but they then get a critical homestand for those rematches against the Dolphins and Jets.

Objectively, the Bills are still very good. Their three losses have come by a combined eight points. They've now lost three of five close games this season after going 0-5 in those games a year ago, but this same core was 5-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer the previous season, so I don't think it learned how to win these close ones in 2020 and forgot over the ensuing two seasons.

Is Allen's elbow OK?

Allen was touch-and-go to even play Sunday before starting the game, at which point he looked like the same old Allen for most of the game. There might have been a touch of zip missing on a throw here or there, but he didn't seem to show much discomfort or play differently than he would in a typical week. The 26-year-old scrambled like his usual self, running six times for 84 yards.

There were two exceptions. One was on the interception return by Peterson during regulation, when he tackled Peterson and stayed down in pain after the play. The other was on that final interception, when it didn't look like he got as much as he wanted on the ball and threw a pick to end the game.

I'm not a doctor, so I won't speculate as to the chances of Allen further injuring his elbow. The Bills also just blew a 17-point second-half lead, so the idea I'm about to bring up might seem foolish given what we all just saw in Buffalo: With these upcoming games against overmatched competition, the Bills would be wise to sit Allen in moments when they can. If they get up big on either the Browns or Lions, resting him for the second half or the fourth quarter would be a good idea. It's clear they can't realistically expect him to change his physical style of play, so getting him off the field altogether is the only way to ensure he avoids unnecessary hits.

What about all the other stuff you didn't mention?

There are still many moments I haven't touched on here. I'll wrap up with a few of them:

This was so close to a catastrophic Vikings loss. If the Bills successfully completed that handoff and kneeled out the clock, we're talking about something close to the same old Vikings. After that Jefferson catch, they didn't score on a first-and-goal sequence from the 3-yard line, in part because embattled right guard Ed Ingram stepped on Cousins' foot for the second time in the game.

Jefferson came within a foot of scoring, only to be stopped short. Cook was nearly the goat for dropping a walk-in touchdown, but after a Bills offside penalty, Cousins was then at fault for coming up short on a quarterback sneak. And, as usual, a kicker figured into the blame, as Greg Joseph's missed extra point had meant that the Vikings needed to go for a touchdown on the final drive as opposed to being able to fall back on a field goal.

Buffalo missed opportunities to ice the contest. We don't know how the final drives would have turned out with a different score, but the Bills left points and opportunities on the table. I already mentioned Allen's red zone interception, which came on fourth-and-goal. Singletary's fumble cost them points.

With the Bills facing a second-and-2 from the Vikings' 22-yard line with a 14-point lead and 18 minutes to go, a touchdown might have gotten Allen out of the game. Instead, the drive stalled; he had a pass tipped at the line, then Duke Johnson was stuffed for no gain. Buffalo could have gone for it on fourth-and-2, but it instead kicked a field goal to go up 17. Cook scored an 81-yard touchdown and launched the Minnesota comeback on the next play.

The Vikings aided themselves with a trio of fourth-down conversions. While the Bills failed on fourth-and-goal and the Vikings came up short on a fourth-and-1 throw by Cousins before the half, Minnesota's success on fourth down helped push the game its way. You know what Jefferson did, but on the previous drive, K.J. Osborn narrowly converted a fourth-and-1 jet sweep for a first down. Later on that same possession, the Vikings converted a fourth-and-6 on a throw to T.J. Hockenson for 12. That drive eventually produced a C.J. Ham touchdown to bring the game within four.

Gabe Davis's 20-yard catch that wasn't! Vikings fans would have had every right to be upset about what happened on the final drive of regulation. With the Bills checking the ball down, Allen eventually got bored and hit Davis with a sharp pass on the sideline for a 20-yard completion. The pass required a diving catch from Davis, but the play was ruled a completion on the field.

The Bills got up to the line and ran a play, but that never should have happened. As NFL senior VP of officiating Walt Anderson noted after the game, the call was wrong, and play should have been stopped by the replay official to take a look at the throw. Instead, the Bills picked up 15 more yards on the ensuing snap, getting into field goal range. It didn't end up mattering, but the sequence pushed the game to overtime.

There was a lot to love from Sunday's game. Defensive purists might not have loved it -- and both teams might have left opportunities on the field -- but football is supposed to be fun, and this was wildly entertaining. Getting to see Diggs and Jefferson trade big catches with the game on the line was fun. Getting to see a rematch between these two in February might be even more entertaining.