MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kevin O’Connell was an NFL prospect in the process of workouts and meetings when New York Jets quarterbacks coach Brian Daboll arrived for a pre-draft session with the San Diego State product.
O’Connell landed with New England instead for the start of his short-lived playing career in 2008, but he developed an instant respect for Daboll that day that kept growing throughout their journeys across the league.
Nearly 15 years later, they’ll be strategizing against each other on opposite sidelines in Minnesota when the Vikings host the New York Giants on Saturday in a matchup of this season’s two most successful rookie coaches.
“I think the world of him. He’s a tremendous leader of men, and schematically he’s a good coach,” said O’Connell, who was previously offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. “You can see just by the way that guys play with great effort and are dialed into the details. He’s done a tremendous job.”
Daboll was hired by the Giants (8-5-1) this year after four seasons as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator. Though they’ve won only twice in the last eight weeks, the Giants control a wild card spot and the No. 6 seed in the NFC. Daboll is the fifth coach they’ve had in 11 years since winning Super Bowl 46, which was also their last postseason victory.
Coming off a 20-12 win over Washington, the Giants have the makings of some momentum. They’ll have their hands full at Minnesota, where the Vikings (11-3) completed the biggest comeback in NFL history to beat Indianapolis 39-36 in overtime last week and clinch their first NFC North title in five years.
The Vikings have won 10 games by one-score margins to match the all-time single-season record.
“They don’t flinch. I think that’s a testament to coach O’Connell — and the rest of the guys on that team,” Daboll said.
New York’s front four — Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Azeez Ojulari and Kayvon Thibodeaux — put plenty of pressure on Washington’s Taylor Heinicke last week and will likely need to keep that up against Kirk Cousins to give the Giants a chance to win. The Colts sacked Cousins seven times, but he passed for 417 yards after halftime to fuel the rally.
“Kevin does a great job calling the offense. I said it’s unfair: I’m the blue-collar guy going against Harry Styles,” Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said, invoking the popular singer, songwriter and actor. “He’s a good-looking young guy, but I really like Kevin.”
Contending with Justin Jefferson, who leads the league with 111 receptions and 1,623 receiving yards, is of course the biggest stress this week for the Giants.
“I told the defense he’s one of the top two receivers in this league, and he’s not number two,” Martindale said. “He’s had a phenomenal year. Their whole offense has. It’s one of those things that they throw the ball, and he could be in double or triple coverage, and he still catches it. I know it’s fun for the fan to watch. It’s not very fun for defensive coordinators.”
In 14 games, the Giants have completed 21 passes of 20 yards or more — none last week. The losses of Sterling Shepard and Wan’Dale Robinson to major knee injuries and the departure of 2021 first-round pick Kadarius Toney via trade to Kansas City depleted their deep threats. Daniel Jones has dieted on high-percentage throws to Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins, Richie James and running back Saquon Barkley, who leads the team with 47 catches.
But Jones has only four interceptions, the fewest among NFL regulars this year, and after going 12-25 as a starter over his first three seasons he’s in position to lock up a spot in the playoffs. The Giants need a win plus losses by two of their three closest NFC pursuers: Detroit (at Carolina), Seattle (at Kansas City) and Washington (at San Francisco).
“We believe we’re a good team. We’re just going to keep focusing one week at a time and play as well as we can,” Jones said.
The Vikings scored the tying touchdown against the Colts on a 64-yard screen pass to Dalvin Cook, who had a career-high 95 receiving yards in the game. Cook also passed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fourth straight season. His average of 4.5 yards per carry is a career low, but he has played in all 14 games thus far to match his career high and remains a vital part of the offense despite Jefferson being the star of the show.
“We know we put a lot of energy into that game. We accomplished what we needed to accomplish,” Cook said. “We’ve just got to carry over that second half.”
After the Vikings rallied from 17 points down to beat Buffalo in overtime on Nov. 13, they had quite the dud the following week, a 40-3 defeat by Dallas. They’ll be trying to avoid a repeat of that emotional falloff.
“These guys are fighting for playoff implications as well, so we know we’re going to get their best shot,” Peterson said.
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