The Minnesota Vikings suffered a 23-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals Thursday night, but as close as the game was, the injury-depleted Vikings did the two things you can’t do and expect to win a football game – give up big plays and turn the ball over.
In a game that the Vikings could have won, there were five critical mistakes that made the difference in winning and losing and changing the landscape of the 2015 season.
Head coach Mike Zimmer highlighted all of them in his postgame press conference, citing that, while the Vikings did a tremendous job considering how undermanned they were on defense against the league’s top-ranked offense, teams simply don’t win games when they give up big plays on defense and turn the ball over on the offensive side.
“I thought our team resembled more of what I’m used to seeing,” Zimmer said. “We played with a lot physicality, a lot of heart, a lot of effort. We didn’t do enough things to win the football game. We had the three fumbles. We gave up some big plays defensively, which didn’t allow us to win the football game.”
Coaches and players alike will say that just about every NFL game comes down to a handful of plays that will win or lose it. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the five biggest plays of the game went against them – and they were spread out through all four quarters.
Play No. 1: With two minutes remaining in the first quarter and the Vikings leading 7-3, Captain Munnerlyn got turned around by speedy Arizona receiver John Brown, who caught a pass on the Vikings sideline. It appeared as though Munnerlyn thought Brown was going to run out of bounds, but he got a block and outran the Vikings defense for a 65-yard touchdown.
Play No. 2: Thanks to a 41-yard pass play to Rhett Ellison with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the first half and the Cardinals leading 10-7, the Vikings were in scoring position. Teddy Bridgewater connected with Jarius Wright, who looked as though he was going to pick up a first down inside the Arizona 15-yard line. But Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon stripped Wright of the ball and fell on it to turn away the Vikings in the red zone.
Play No. 3: With the Vikings driving into Arizona territory on the opening drive of the second half, the Vikings looked to try a little trickery with the Cardinals defense swarming to Peterson. The plan was to have Peterson hand the ball to Mike Wallace on a reverse, but Cardinals nose tackle Josh Mauro split a gap in the blocking scheme, hit Peterson and forced a fumble that was recovered by Arizona’s Alex Okafor.
Play No. 4: Six plays after the Vikings fumbled, the defense had a chance to negate the turnover with a third-and-8 play from the Vikings 42-yard line. Instead, a defensive lapse had three Vikings defenders guarding nobody in a small clot of players, allowing Michael Floyd to catch a wide open pass, get a block from Larry Fitzgerald and get sprung for a 42-yard touchdown to give Arizona a 17-10 lead.
Play No. 5: With the Vikings in field goal range trailing 23-20 with 13 seconds left and no timeouts, the team looked to gain a few additional yards by throwing a sideline pass. But Bridgewater was hit from behind by veteran Dwight Freeney, fumbled the ball and ended the game.
As dejected as everyone involved with the team was Thursday, Zimmer said he hopes the realization that the Vikings can compete with a team that will almost surely be heading into the playoffs with a first-round bye – a stark contrast from the beatings they took from Green Bay and Seattle at home with a full week of preparation – can instill a fire in them. If the Vikings take care of their own business, they can be a playoff team with an attitude that they can go on the road and win big games – perhaps even a return trip to Glendale, Arizona.
“I hope, I hope, they learned that if we fight and play with a chip on our shoulder, we fight and we give the kind of effort that we did tonight that we have a chance to be a good football team,” Zimmer said. “I’m hoping that this is a good learning experience for our guys, even though we lost. I’ve always said no moral victories, but this is hopefully a good learning experience for us.”
- It appeared early as though Peterson was going to have a big game after rushing for 39 yards on five carries in the first quarter. However, after that the Cardinals put the clamps on A.P., holding him to just 30 yards on 18 carries after the first quarter.
- Peterson’s first-quarter touchdown was the 100th TD of his Hall of Fame career.
- Due to injuries at the safety position, the Vikings started cornerback Terence Newman at safety, which gave rookie Trae Waynes the first start of his NFL career.
- In his postgame press conference, Zimmer admitted he lied to the local media that he wasn’t going to play Newman at safety because, as he theorized it, the media would tip off the Cardinals in advance that he was making the switch, although many believed Newman was going to play safety anyway despite the deception.
- Rookie David Johnson won the battle of the running backs, rushing 92 times for 19 yards.
- Both quarterbacks had impressive performances. Bridgewater completed 25 of 36 passes for 335 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions and a passer rating of 108.0. Carson Palmer completed 25 of 35 passes for 310 yards with two TDs, no picks and a passer rating of 117.6.
- Kyle Rudolph took over the team lead in receptions, catching six passes for 67 yards, giving him 45 catches on the season. He passed Stefon Diggs, who had Patrick Peterson shadowing him all night and caught just two passes for 12 yards, giving him 44 receptions on the season.
- Mike Wallace showed up for the first time in a while, catching three passes for 42 yards and a touchdown, his second TD as a Viking.
- With the Cardinals defense selling out to stop Peterson in the running game, it opened up things for other players in the passing game. Bridgewater completed passes of 41 yards to Ellison, 32 yards to MyCole Pruitt, 24 yards to Zach Line, 23 yards to Wallace, 22 yards to Wright and 22 yards to Matt Asiata.
- The Cardinals are one of the best red zone offenses in the league, but the Vikings held them to two field goals from first-and-goal situations, including a goal-line stand from the 2-yard line.
- For the 12th time in 13 games, the Vikings allowed an opponent to score two touchdowns or fewer.
- The yardage for both teams was a virtual mirror image throughout. The Cardinals finished with 393 yards of offense – 212 in the first half and 181 yards in the second half. The Vikings finished with 389 yards – 210 in the first half and 179 yards in the second half.
- Both defenses came into the game being extremely strong on third down, but both offenses were able to make the big conversions. The Vikings converted six of 11 third downs (54 percent), while the Cardinals converted six of 13 third downs (46 percent).
- The Vikings committed just three penalties, but two of them were crucial. Minnesota didn’t have a penalty until the fourth quarter, but it was huge. Marcus Sherels returned a punt 33 yards to the Arizona 45-yard line, but a holding call on Josh Robinson pushed the ball back to the 12-yard line, forcing the Vikings to drive 88 yards for the game-tying score. On the first play after the touchdown, Palmer threw an interception to Trae Waynes in his own territory, but it was negated by an offside call on Sharrif Floyd.
- Safety Anthony Harris, who was called up from the practice squad prior to Thursday’s game, tied with Chad Greenway for the team lead in tackles with eight. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu led all defensive players with 11 tackles.
- Cordarrelle Patterson had another strong outing in the kick return game. He returned three kickoffs for 93 yards to give the Vikings solid field position to start three of their drives.
- It was a shame that Blair Walsh didn’t get a chance to kick the game tying field goal. He made two field goals in the game, including a 54-yarder to keep the Vikings within reach at 20-13 in the fourth quarter.
- In what turned out to be a critical play, with 2:30 remaining in the game, Palmer threw a pass that was batted into the air by Brian Robison. The ball landed in between a half dozen bodies into the arms of guard Mike Iupati, who not only caught the ball, but gained 10 yards and got the ball into Vikings territory for the potential game-winning touchdown.
- Xavier Rhodes suffered what initially looked like it could have been a broken right wrist in the second quarter, but he got the wrist heavily taped and returned to action on the next series.
- From the time of the fumble on the attempted reverse on the Vikings’ first drive of the third quarter until the start of the fourth quarter, Arizona outgained the Vikings 123-6 and took the score from a 10-10 tie to a 20-10 Cardinals lead.
- Both QBs spread the ball around, completing passes to six different receivers in the first half. Palmer completed passes to six different receivers in the first quarter alone.
- Prior to Thursday’s game, in the previous five games, Bridgewater had just two touchdowns and three interceptions.
- The Vikings looked to have a chance for the game’s first big play early when it appeared as though Arizona wide receiver Jaron Brown fumbled on the 7-yard line. The Vikings challenged the call, but although it appeared as though the ball was coming out from a Munnerlyn strip, the officials ruled Brown’s elbow touched before the ball came loose and Arizona kept possession.
- In what has been a rarity this season, Arizona won the coin toss and elected to take the ball rather than defer to the second half. What followed was a 14-play drive to start the game that ate up more than half of the first quarter.
- The roof at University of Phoenix Stadium was left open during the game, with little to no wind and a game-time temperature of 70 degrees.
- The Vikings flirted with history Thursday. They hadn’t come back to win a game from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit since they beat Philadelphia in 1985.