The Minnesota Vikings have little left to play for, with a fan base largely focused on positioning for next year's draft. Landing the first overall pick is a realistic outcome.
Their competitiveness hasn't waned despite this dismal 2-8-1 record, but their late-game command has sure been missing. That goes for everyone.
Consider the reaction from both sides of the ball after their latest collapse Sunday in Green Bay that led to a 26-26 tie.
"The game was in our hands, and we just have to find a way to make some plays on defense at the end of the game to get the victory," said cornerback Chris Cook.
Said wide receiver Greg Jennings: "I thought we did some very positive things, but we just couldn't stick it in the end zone when we needed to. That's the difference in games, when you settle for three instead of getting six."
The Vikings lost a 23-7 lead that lasted until less than 12 minutes remained in regulation, and missed several opportunities to win the game after the Packers caught up. Four times this season, the Vikings have held a lead inside the 1-minute mark and failed to win. If those four finishes were reversed, well, the Vikings would be 6-5 and tied for first place in the now-unremarkable NFC North.
"It's not all about Xs and Os on a board. The game has always been that way. It's the same way when I played and the same way today," coach Leslie Frazier said Monday. "Sometimes it's just a matter of who can make a play."
One or two close losses could be considered bad luck. When the pattern persists like this, there are clearly weaknesses being exploited by the opponents, a sign of a team with a record that's close to commensurate with the roster.
There were problems immediately apparent in the first quarter of this season, particularly on defense when Chicago and Cleveland rallied for last-minute victories against the Vikings in consecutive weeks.
Injuries since have exacerbated the vulnerability to long scoring drives with the game on the line, and the production of timely turnovers has been next to nonexistent since totaling 12 takeaways over the first four games. Over their last seven games, the Vikings have forced only two turnovers.
With rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes out because of a concussion, backup safety Robert Blanton was thrust into the nickel cornerback spot Sunday down the stretch. The Packers started overtime with the ball and were on the verge of a punt from their 20-yard line after a third-and-9 sack by Chad Greenway, but Blanton was called for holding wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
That gave the Packers a first down, and with new life they drove to the 2 and kicked a field goal.
Despite 146 yards rushing by Adrian Peterson and 91 on the ground by Toby Gerhart, plus a turnover-free performance by Christian Ponder, the Vikings again played a Sunday game on American soil and failed to win. Their only victories this season came in London over Pittsburgh and on a Thursday against Washington.
"It definitely wasn't celebration," Peterson said after the game. "It is what it is."
Rhodes played probably his best game as a pro until getting hurt, with four tackles and four of his team's nine passes defended. He'll have to pass his post-concussion tests to be cleared to play this week, and since the Vikings released cornerback A.J. Jefferson Monday their depth chart in the secondary is again unsettled. Cornerback Josh Robinson is already out with a broken sternum.
Frazier said Robinson won't be placed on injured reserve, however. Another seriously injured player expected back before the end of the season is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who could begin practicing on his broken left foot next week, Frazier said. Safety Harrison Smith, who has missed the last six games because of a turf toe injury on his left foot, is on track to return to practice Wednesday. He's eligible to be taken off injured reserve and return for the final three games.
Frazier, ever the optimist, continued to speak of pride and hope when reflecting on the tie against the Packers and looking ahead to the final five games.
"I do sense that there's a belief there that things are heading in the right direction," Frazier said. "We've just got to get a W."
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