The Minnesota Vikings came out of their bye three weeks ago looking to continue the momentum they had built up over their first five games in which they jumped out to a 5-0 record and looked as though they were going to steamroll their opponents and have the potential to lock down not only a division title, but make sure the playoffs would come through U.S. Bank Stadium.
On Sunday, the Vikings lost their third straight game – this time a 22-16 overtime loss that has the Vikings reeling, all of their early tie-breaker advantages erased and a team grasping for explanations as to why things are going wrong.
From the offensive perspective, the Vikings showed some improvement, but not enough to be anywhere close to expectations. Once again, the Vikings started out slowly, not scoring a touchdown until the third quarter after falling behind 10-3.
As in their two previous games, the Vikings also had points they left on the field after getting into the red zone. Kyle Rudolph summed up the frustrating, saying it goes against everything Mike Zimmer has emphasized with his players.
“That is something that Zim has preached since he got here,” Rudolph said. “If you don’t beat yourself, you’ll win most of your games and then find a way to win the rest of them. We beat ourselves today. You have to give credit to the Lions, but (our) offense, defense and special teams, we fought – it’s great to see the fight – but we beat ourselves.”
The Vikings had their opportunities in the first half. They had a 12-play drive that carried from the first quarter into the second. After an interception by Chad Greenway, the offense started a drive in the red zone and ended up losing 22 yards due to a penalty and a sack and didn’t even get the chance to attempt a field goal.
While the offense did look different and more wide open in the controlled passing game, it wasn’t nearly enough to be deemed a success, despite a late drive that appeared to give the Vikings the win. Wide receiver Adam Thielen felt it never should have come to that.
“We moved the ball in situations we needed to,” Thielen said. “But, as the same time, we have to start faster. We need to take pressure off our defense and just start faster. We could have done things on offense to make it not even a game. Had we started faster, it’s a totally different game. You can’t think about woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
This has become a habit for the post-bye Vikings. In the games against Philadelphia and Chicago, the offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter in both games when the team was facing a significant deficit.
While the offense looked sharper Sunday, it still left golden opportunities behind – blowing a drive that started in the red zone and failing to pick up a first down in the fourth quarter with two runs needing just one yard to keep the drive going.
“This is another game where it seems like we beat ourselves,” Rudolph said. “We left points on the board. Offensively, we could have had 21 or 28 points. That’s a game that we’ve got to win as an offense. We moved the ball well up and down the field and we shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties and have stalled drives when the defense got us the ball in great field position.”
In the aftermath of the loss, the Vikings weren’t remembering the 14-play drive that appeared to win the game, as they scored with 23 seconds left for a 16-13 lead and appeared to have dodged a bullet.
Instead, it was the waiting and watching that left a sour taste in their mouths, seeing the Lions get a field goal against all odds with no timeouts remaining and scoring on the first possession of overtime to end the game.
“It’s hard to remember the good things we did,” offensive tackle Jake Long said. “When you come out of the game with a loss, that is what sticks with you. We made some plays down the stretch, which was nice, and I thought we had a rhythm going at times, but we can’t get off to slow starts and just pick it up at the end. All that mattered to the guys in this locker room is that we lost.”
The struggles the Vikings had prior to their final offensive drive of the game is what is going to stick with them. The common thread of their three straight losses has been leaving points on the field and not putting their foot on the throat of an opponent when the opportunity is there.
“Things might not have been going our way for a lot of the game, but we’ve got to win that game as an offense,” Rudolph said. “We can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We take a lot of pride in playing physical football and we didn’t get the job done enough. We left way too many points on the field.”
In the end, the offense made enough plays when it counted – converting three third downs and a fourth down on their go-ahead touchdown drive – but that won’t be the lingering memory of Sunday’s loss. It will be that the defense didn’t finish out the game and the offense had enough stalls along the way to not put the game away when it had the chance.
“That’s the way these games go,” guard Brandon Fusco said of divisional games. “They’re always going to be close and it’s always a play or two that makes the game. These are the ones that hurt the most – when you don’t win. We’ve got to regroup, watch film and get better from this.”