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'Trying to be a legend': Justin Jefferson proves worth yet again as Vikings edge Packers

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packers primary cover image 11-21

Vikings' Justin Jefferson dives in the end zone for a touchdown as Packers' Eric Stokes defends during the fourth quarter Sunday in Minneapolis. 

Justin Jefferson wore a Randy Moss T-shirt in warmups on Sunday, proof that Minnesota greats appreciate history. Remember, Prince wore a ruffled shirt, just like Jimi Hendrix.

Jefferson dressed for success, then undressed the Packers secondary in a performance that made you wonder if the Vikings have another receiver running a fly route toward the Hall of Fame.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers speaks to the media via Zoom after the Packers fell to the Minnesota Vikings 34-31 on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Sunday, in one of those games that gives you night sweats during the day, Jefferson caught eight passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings beat Green Bay 34-31 at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Jefferson has proved he is the Vikings' best player.

He has proved their offense is at its best when he is their primary target.

He has proved good things happen when General Manager Rick Spielman uses his first-round pick on something other than a cornerback.

And he has proved if Kirk Cousins keeps throwing him the ball, the Vikings are a far better team than they seemed to be three weeks ago, when the soundtrack to the season was the grumbling of underused receivers.

"That's the mind-set I have," Jefferson said when asked about the Moss T-shirt. "Just trying to be a legend, trying to make big plays. Why not carry after him? He's one of the best in the game and I just love playing this game. I love the rivalry, love these intense, big games. It's what I live for."

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he heard Jefferson say as much during the week. "After the game, he tells me, 'I told you I got you, coach,'" Zimmer said. "That's the kind of guy you want to have. He's a great competitor, runs great routes."

The word "great" is as overused as emojis these days, but when Cousins throws the ball in Jefferson's direction, it's not incorrect.

Jefferson has played 26 NFL games. His totals: 151 catches, 2,344 yards and 13 touchdowns. Moss after 26 NFL games had 122 catches for 2,161 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Justin Jefferson 2021: Game-by game stats

This year, in the Vikings' five losses, Jefferson has caught 22 passes for 310 yards. In their five victories, he has caught 41 passes for 634 yards.

Rushing yards can appear correlated to victories, because a team with a lead is more likely to run the ball. Receiving yards can be deceiving, because a team losing by 20 points is more likely to pick up meaningless completions.

That the Vikings win when Jefferson is targeted is the key statistic of their season, and perhaps their immediate future, and is proof that fans and receivers complaining about his usage were right.

Jefferson is almost always open, and the one time Cousins forced a pass to him on Sunday, Jefferson might have made his best play.

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur speaks to the media after the Packers fell to the Minnesota Vikings 34-31 on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

With 2:08 left in the game, the Vikings had the ball on their own 30. Cousins threw a pass to Jefferson deep down the right sideline. Packers safety Darnell Savage cut in front of Jefferson and caught it. As he fell, Jefferson hacked at his arms, and Savage lost his grip.

The officials on the field called it an interception. Replay ruled it an incompletion. Jefferson caught a 6-yard pass on the next play and the Vikings drove down the field to set up Greg Joseph's winning 29-yard field goal as time expired.

On Oct. 31, the Vikings began a daunting four-game stretch by losing 20-16 to Dallas. Jefferson had two catches for 21 yards. The next week, he had three catches for 69 yards in a 34-31 overtime loss at Baltimore.

The past two weeks, the Vikings have beaten two contenders in the Chargers and Packers as Jefferson has caught 17 passes for 312 yards.

Last year, the Vikings ran their offense through Dalvin Cook and finished 7-9.

If they're going to continue their recent surge toward the playoffs, they need to realize that throwing downfield to Jefferson creates space and ease for his teammates - running lanes for Cook, underneath routes for Adam Thielen, copious yards for Cousins.

Moss introduced himself to the Packers rivalry on a rainy Monday night in Lambeau Field in 1998.

Jefferson belated insinuated himself into Minnesota's defining rivalry in U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.

Don't be surprised if, the next time you see Moss on TV, he's wearing a shirt that reads "Jefferson."

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