A road win against one of the league’s best teams was right in their grasp.
It slipped away with one swipe of Dwight Freeney’s large hand.
Freeney sacked Teddy Bridgewater with 5 seconds left and Arizona recovered his fumble, sending the Vikings to a 23-20 loss to the Cardinals on Thursday night.
“I thought our team resembled more of what I am used to seeing,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, whose team is a half-game behind Green Bay in the NFC North. “We didn’t do enough things to win the football game, though.”
The Vikings (8-5) had a short week of preparation after losing to Seattle 38-7 on Sunday, their worst home loss in 31 years. They also came to the desert down four starters on defense, which didn’t bode well against the NFL’s most prolific offense
The defense had some good moments, as did the offense. They just weren’t as good as the Cardinals.
Minnesota’s defense allowed 393 yards, but clamped down in the red zone, holding Arizona to field goals three times. One of those came late, though; Chandler Catanzaro’s 47-yard field goal with 1:23 left put the Cardinals up three.
Peterson got his touches after being a non-factor against the Seahawks, but he didn’t do much after scoring on a 9-yard run in the first quarter. He had 23 carries for 69 yards — 31 after Minnesota’s opening drive.
Even with Arizona shutting down Peterson, the Vikings rallied from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit.
Blair Walsh kicked a 54-yard field goal and Bridgewater followed with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace after Arizona’s Justin Bethel lost him in coverage.
Minnesota got the ball back at its own 20-yard line and quickly moved down the field, reaching Arizona’s 31 with 18 seconds left. Hoping to get a few more yards to Walsh a closer look, the Vikings called for a pass play.
The decision backfired when Freeney used a spin move to break free and hit Bridgewater’s arm just as he was about to throw, causing Minnesota’s third fumble of the game. Calais Campbell recovered and Arizona (11-2) took a knee to secure a playoff spot with its seventh straight win.
“I was just ready to throw the ball out of bounds so we could live and see another down,” said Bridgewater, who threw for 335 yards and a touchdown on 25-of-36 passing. “I didn’t want to take a loss, sack or get tackled in bounds.”
The Vikings made sure they got the ball to Peterson early after the NFL’s rushing leader had nine yards on eight carries against Seattle. He had 38 yards on their opening drive and capped it with a highlight-reel 9-yard touchdown that included two cuts left, one right, a juke of a defender and a broken tackle into the end zone.
But Peterson wasn’t able to do much after Arizona started clogging his running lanes. He also lost a fumble at Arizona’s 43-yard line in the third quarter while trying to hand the ball off on a reverse.
“I thought he ran physical, he ran hard,” Zimmer said. “They had everybody in the world up at the line of scrimmage. But this is the team we are, this is who we have to be.”
Minnesota’s defense was mostly solid.
The Vikings a big breakdown in the first quarter, allowing John Brown to race up the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. Another one came on the opening drive of the third quarter, when Minnesota left two receivers open and Michael Floyd ran in for a 42-yard touchdown with a block from the other receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, to put the Cardinals up 17-10.
The touchdown pass was the second of the game for Arizona’s Carson Palmer, giving 31 for the season — one more than Kurt Warner’s team record set 2008.
The Vikings had their chances on Arizona’s final drive, only to come up short. Trae Waynes had an interception called back due to an offside call, Cardinals left guard Mike Lupati had a 10-yard reception on a tipped ball and David Johnson sneaked out of the backfield for a 14-yard game that put Catanzaro in position for the game-winner.
“Obviously, there are things we need to fix up, but overall I thought we played really well,” Waynes said.
Notes: Arizona played without running back Andre Ellington (hamstring), cornerback Jerraud Powers (calf) and defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (knee) due to injuries. ... Bridgewater had Minnesota’s only other run, gaining three yards. He also completed passes to 11 different receivers.