Playoffs a painful reminder for Vikings

Both NFC playoff games last weekend showed the Vikings what they were missing in the regular season – the ability to take a game late when presented the opportunity.

The first weekend of the postseason was as solid as proof gets as to why teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints not only made the playoffs but advanced with road wins last weekend. They showed why they were playoff teams and the Vikings weren't.

The Saints and 49ers were the subject of some public debate over the previous week because, despite having better records than the teams they were playing, both were on the road. For those of us who believe in the benefit of winning a division to earn a postseason home game, all the Niners and Saints had to do was prove they were the better team. They did – in almost identical fashion. In a way that was a glaring example of why Minnesota wasn't hosting one of them in the playoffs.

When both teams had a chance to close out the game, they did. The Saints were on the road in Philadelphia and, trailing 24-23, the Saints offense got the ball on the Philly 48-yard line with 4:54 to play. The game was in their hands despite being behind. What did New Orleans do? They rattled off a 10-play drive that got rid of the Eagles' timeouts and drove the ball inside the Philadelphia 15-yard line. They moved the chains, kept the drive alive and didn't give the Eagles a chance to respond. With the clock winding down, New Orleans called a timeout with three seconds left, sent kicker Shayne Graham on the field and, as time expired, he made the field goal that won the game 26-24.

The next day at Green Bay, the 49ers and Packers were slugging it out. When Packers kicker Mason Crosby hit a field goal with 5:06 left to play, the game was tied 20-20 and the 49ers had the ball on their own 20-yard line. What followed? A 14-play, 65-yard drive that bled the clock, forced the Packers to use their remaining timeouts and, after calling a timeout with three seconds to play, kicker Phil Dawson made a field goal as time expired to give San Francisco a win.

While the Vikings defense got much more of the blame for the team's late-game collapses, it was the inability of the Vikings to do anything remotely like what the 49ers and Saints did last weekend that was the difference between winning and losing. If it was just once, that would be one thing. You could write that off to critical miscommunication, a bad play, dumb luck, whatever. But when it happens as often as it did to the Vikings, it was a trend that showed why the Vikings didn't win the NFC North with a 9-7 record.
Blame the defense if you must, but the Vikings had five situations in which they could have accomplished what both the 49ers and Saints did – on the road no less.

In their Week 2 loss to the Bears, the teams were tied 24-24 entering the fourth quarter. The Vikings engineered a 13-play drive that died inside the Chicago 10-yard line. They got the ball a second time with 6:28 to play and put together an eight-play drive that stalled inside the 5-yard line. A touchdown would have given the Vikings a 10-point lead, leaving the Bears with just 3:15 on the clock and one timeout. Instead, it was a one-possession game and Chicago had the time to put together a 10-play drive that ended with the game-winning touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett with just 10 seconds to play.

In Week 3 against Cleveland, the Vikings kicked a field goal with 10:47 to play to take a 27-24 lead. The Vikings got the ball back with 8:39 to play with a chance to milk the clock down. Instead, they went three-and-out, leaving 7:11 on the clock. With a chance to close out the game with 4:22 to play and Cleveland down to two timeouts, the Vikings put together another three-and-out, forcing the Browns to use only one of their two remaining timeouts and taking just 1:01 off the clock. With 3:21 to play, a timeout in their pocket and on their own-45 yard line, the Browns drove 55 yards on 11 plays, scoring a touchdown with 51 seconds to play for a 31-27 Cleveland win.

Following what appeared to be a potential game-ending interception by A.J. Jefferson in Week 9 at Dallas, the Vikings had the ball on the Dallas 41-yard line with 4:29 to play and a chance to end the game. The Vikings again went three-and-out and took just 1:35 off the clock. They didn't force the Cowboys to use one of their two remaining timeouts and more than 40 seconds of the time the Vikings took off the clock came when they held the ball for a delay-of-game penalty that turned what would have been a 54-yard field goal attempt by Blair Walsh into a punt. Dallas drove 90 yards in nine plays, scoring a touchdown with 35 seconds to play in a 27-23 Cowboys victory.

With a 23-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, all the Vikings needed to do was put together one sustained drive to close out the game against the Packers. Green Bay scored 16 points in the fourth quarter (two touchdowns and a field goal), but the Vikings had a 23-20 lead and 3:24 to play. The Vikings ran just three plays, allowing the Packers to use their final two timeouts to stop the clock and get the ball back with 2:27 to play – just 57 seconds coming off the clock. The Packers drove 60 yards in 10 plays, using just 1:41 off the game clock to tie the game. Both teams would score in overtime. But with 3:26 to play from the Minnesota 39-yard line with a chance to get into scoring position to end the game, the Vikings went three-and-out, left 1:59 on the clock and lost their final chance to win the game. They finished tied.

Throw in that the Vikings blew a lead twice in Week 14 in the final 1:30 – both times when the Baltimore Ravens had to score a touchdown to take the lead back – and you have five games that kept the Vikings from being 9-7 or 10-6, instead finishing 5-10-1. Of all the reasons they failed to close out games, the 49ers and Saints showed them how it was done last weekend and explained why they'll be playing this weekend and the Vikings will be watching … again.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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