There is an axiom in the NFL that speaks about a defense getting off the field on third downs – not allowing the opponent to string together long drives or make the big play that can be a back-breaker. When you get them into a third-down situation, the only objective is to make the play that ends the drive. It was the Vikings' inability to do that that resulted in their turning point in a losing effort.
It wasn't that the Vikings defense as a whole was playing poorly. In fact, as the game went into the fourth quarter, San Diego barely had 100 yards of total offense, but it was critical third-down yardage that accounted for much of it – despite San Diego converting just 3 of 16 third-down opportunities.
"It was a little frustrating because I thought we were doing a good job most of the time, but there were plays here and there that didn't get us off the field," linebacker Erin Henderson said. "That was the problem. If we make one play here or there, it's a completely different outcome."
The first points of the game came in the first quarter when the Chargers went on a 13-play drive that gained just 37 yards of offense but ate up almost seven minutes of clock time, including a pair of third-down plays that proved to be critical.
The first came on a third-and-12 near midfield. Quarterback Charlie Whitehurst threw a pass that was ill-timed and had little chance of being caught. However, Chris Carr was called for a holding penalty that kept the drive alive and got the Chargers to the Vikings 42-yard line.
After a Jared Allen sack pushed the Chargers back to the 40-yard line and out of field goal range, Whitehurst threw a screen pass to Ronnie Brown, who was caught behind the line but made a pair of Vikings miss – gaining eight yards and putting San Diego into range for Nate Kaeding to kick a 50-yard field goal to give the Chargers a 3-0 lead.
Early in the second quarter, following a Lex Hilliard fumble, San Diego was faced with third-and-18 from the 39-yard line – again outside of field goal range. But Whitehurst found wide receiver Michael Spurlock wide open crossing the middle for a 22-yard gain and a first down that would lead to a 34-yard field goal by Nick Novak to give San Diego a 6-0 lead.
The last of the third-down mistakes came in the final minute. Trailing 10-9 and facing third-and-10, QB Jarrett Lee sailed a pass high in the direction of wide receiver Mike Willie. He couldn't come down with the pass, but rookie Harrison Smith came in high and leveled him, drawing a personal foul penalty.
"I thought maybe I could go for the ball," Smith said. "Then I realized I should go for the hit, so I kind of got caught in the middle. I wish I didn't get that penalty. Maybe I could have played it differently."
Instead of a fourth-and-10 from their own 20-yard line, the Chargers had a first down on their own 35. On the next two plays, Lee completed passes of 20 and 17 yards and, as time expired, Novak kicked a 45-yard field goal to finish off the game and give San Diego a 12-10 win.
In the end, it would have appeared that the Vikings defense did enough on third downs to win the game – allowing opponents to convert just 3 of 16 chances doesn't happen that often. But it was third-down mistakes that were the Vikings' undoing and provided an under-the-radar turning point.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Turning point: Three third-down killers
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