It's difficult to focus on any sort of positives after a last-second loss to a team that hadn't won a game in a calendar year. The story of Sunday's pathetic loss in Detroit is how the Vikings played down to their competition again, shot themselves in the foot with odd decisions and poor execution, and earned every bit of their status as the NFL's laughingstock in Week 13. The discussion going forward now centers around whether or not major changes need to be made in the near future.
But if you can, try to put all of that to the side for a few moments.
Let's not overlook how ridiculously great Justin Jefferson was against the Lions in a losing effort. That was a performance that deserves plenty of appreciation, a career day from a dazzling 22-year-old superstar who continues to establish himself as the Vikings' best player and a beacon of hope for the future.
Jefferson's final line: 11 catches, 182 yards, and a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, with a four-yard rush and an incomplete pass mixed in. The reception and yardage totals were new personal bests. He did everything, putting the Vikings' offense on his back and nearly dragging them to a victory.
What made Jefferson's big day even more impressive was that the Lions knew what was coming and were still powerless to stop it. When Adam Thielen went down with a high-ankle sprain in the opening minutes, the task became simpler for Detroit's secondary. With all due respect to K.J. Osborn and Tyler Conklin — who combined for 113 yards on 11 catches — everyone knew where Kirk Cousins wanted to go with the ball when he dropped back to pass.
"They were playing double coverage, playing a little cloud, having a safety on top with a corner underneath," Jefferson said. "They were trying to take me out the game a little bit, but we did a good job putting me in different positions, moving me, putting me in motion to get the ball."
Jefferson got open anyways, beating man coverage with ease and finding the soft spots against zone. His fluid athleticism and top-tier route-running and contested catch abilities were all on display in a scintillating performance.
The run Jefferson is on right now is a historic one. He has 577 receiving yards over the past four games, an average of 144.25 per game. That's the most prolific four-game stretch in Vikings history, beating out Sidney Rice in 2009, Cris Carter in 1999, and Randy Moss in 2003. Jefferson has just 26 career starts to his name and is already tied for second in franchise history with four 160-yard receiving games, trailing only Moss's eight.
It's rare for a player to follow up an incredible debut season with an even better sophomore campaign, but that's exactly what Jefferson is doing. He currently has the second-most receiving yards through 12 games of a season in Vikings history, and with the benefit of a 17th game, is well on pace to break Moss's '03 single-season record. Jefferson is 423 yards away from that mark with five games to play. Perhaps more notably, he's going to shatter the all-time NFL record for receiving yards in a player's first two seasons. He's just 146 yards away from Odell Beckham Jr.'s total in that department. At this rate, Jefferson will get there on Thursday night.
None of the statistics from Jefferson's huge day in Detroit change the fact that the Vikings lost. His career-best numbers and would-be game-winning touchdown were overshadowed by the way the game ended, and Jefferson himself isn't satisfied.
"As long as we don't get the W, it doesn't matter what type of game I have," he said. "Doesn't matter if I have a career game, record-setting game, it doesn't matter. If we don't come out with the W, it's pointless."
He's right: at the end of the day, winning is the only thing that matters in this league. That's the type of mindset you want your superstars to have.
But if you want a reason to be optimistic about the future of a team that is in disarray right now, try to separate the outcome of Sunday's game from Jefferson's individual greatness. The Vikings have a truly elite receiver on their hands, a player who is in the top three at his position and arguably higher. Now, perhaps their most important task going forward is to continue maximizing his brilliant talents while building a more complete team around him.
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