HOUSTON – In a battle between winless teams that made the playoffs last year, one was going to emerge thinking it could turn its season around and the other was going to end up even more desperate.
The Minnesota Vikings have reason for optimism after holding off a late rally by the now-despondent Houston Texans on Sunday.
“You have to string wins together," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “One game isn’t going to do anything for us. Certainly nice to get a win and get headed in the right direction. But each week is its own entity and we’ve got to be able to string some together for it to mean something and that’s what’s up ahead for us.”
Dalvin Cook ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns for the Vikings (1-3), who beat Houston 31-23.
“It definitely feels good to win a football game, to help the confidence of our team, to get us back in rhythm of knowing we can go out there and win the football game if we play as a whole in each phase of the game," Cook said.
The Texans cut the lead to 8 when Deshaun Watson connected with Kenny Stills on a 24-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-10 with 5:52 remaining.
Houston’s defense got a stop and Will Fuller made an acrobatic one-handed catch on fourth down for what was initially ruled a touchdown with 1:12 left. But after a review it was determined that the ball hit the ground before Fuller gained control, and Minnesota ran out the clock from there.
Alexander Mattison added a rushing touchdown and Cousins threw for 260 yards and a TD for the Vikings.
Houston’s NFL-worst run defense continued to struggle, giving up 162 yards as the Texans dropped to 0-4 for the first time since 2008.
“This is terrible, it's brutal," defensive end J.J. Watt said. “It's depressing. It sucks. It sucks, I don't know any other way to put it."
The loss at home to a previously winless team after a difficult season-opening schedule will ratchet up pressure on coach Bill O'Brien, whose team won the AFC South the previous two seasons.
“We’ve just got to keep working," O'Brien said. “There’s really no way out of it other than that. You have no choice."
Watson threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns and Fuller had 108 yards receiving and a touchdown before he was unable to corral the last ball thrown to him.
Adam Thielen had eight receptions for 114 yards and a TD for the Vikings, and rookie Justin Jefferson had four catches for 103 yards, his second straight 100-yard receiving game.
The Texans opened the third quarter with a 73-yard drive capped by a 24-yard TD reception by Fuller that cut the lead to 17-13.
The Vikings missed a 55-yard field goal attempt on their next possession before Watson and Fuller hooked up again. Fuller made a 43-yard reception to get the Texans to the 8-yard line, but Houston settled for a 25-yard field goal to get within 17-16.
Thielen's 9-yard catch with 41 seconds left in the third quarter made it 24-16.
A 15-yard run by Cook gave the Vikings a first down at the 4, but he was shaken up on the play and went to the sideline. Mattison ran untouched for a 4-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 31-16 with 10:50 to go.
Cook’s first touchdown on a 5-yard run gave the Vikings a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
DeAndre Carter fumbled a punt return later in the quarter and it was recovered by the Vikings. Minnesota added a 31-yard field goal to make it 10-0 and a field goal by Houston midway through the second quarter cut the lead to a touchdown.
Cook shed three defenders before stiff-arming Vernon Hargreaves just before he crossed the goal line on a 7-yard run that extended the lead to 17-3 with 1:53 left before halftime.
Houston had a first down at the 10-yard line just before halftime but settled for a 28-yard field goal as many in the crowd of 12,102 booed loudly.
The Texans welcomed fans on Sunday in a limited capacity after not allowing any at their home opener two weeks ago.
Minnesota’s Harrison Smith was ejected from the game for a leaping helmet-to-helmet hit on Houston’s Jordan Akins late in the first half. Akins suffered a concussion on the play but held onto the ball for a 26-yard reception.
One Minnesota starter, who coach Mike Zimmer did not identify, had a false positive COVID-19 result from a point-of-contact test before the game and had to take two more tests at the stadium before he could be cleared. The team also had three other players whose tests were inconclusive and had to retake tests, forcing them to turn in their inactive player list about 10 minutes late.
The testing problems came after the Vikings had to close their facility on Tuesday and Wednesday after the Titans reported multiple positive tests for the coronavirus, including players who played in the game at U.S. Bank Stadium last Sunday.
The Vikings visit Seattle next Sunday night.
The Texans host the Jaguars next Sunday.