It’s become a familiar refrain over the last two months – the Minnesota Vikings struggle to close out games and find ways to lose games they had the opportunity to win.
While losses to teams like Detroit and Chicago were shocking, there weren’t many who believed that the Vikings had a chance against the Dallas Cowboys, who came to U.S. Bank Stadium riding a 10-game winning streak. But the Vikings’ 17-15 loss to the Cowboys hurt more than most.
As the game flipped to the fourth quarter, the Vikings led 9-7 with 14 minutes to play with a chance to put the Cowboys away. But the prevailing feeling was that the game shouldn’t have been that close to begin with.
Of their three scoring chances, there was a consistent theme – get into scoring position and make a critical mistake. The Vikings scored the first points of the game on a field goal by Kai Forbath, but that wasn’t the story. The Vikings had converted a third-and-1 play that would have given them a first down in the red zone. Instead, a holding penalty on Alex Boone backed the offense up 10 yards and it had to settle for a field goal.
The offense got back in the red zone late in the third quarter, but what looked like a touchdown pass went through the hands of a leaping Kyle Rudolph. On the next series, the defense got a turnover that started a drive at the Dallas 19-yard line, but a false start penalty on T.J. Clemmings backed the Vikings up and they had to settle for another field goal.
It was a familiar refrain that has been heard often over the last couple months.
“I thought we played well enough to win, but it was just the self-inflicted stuff,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “We’re beating ourselves. It was penalties and dumb stuff. We need to clean that up.”
The Vikings defense did an excellent job of containing the high-powered Dallas offense. The Cowboys are averaging more than 400 yards a game, but managed just 264 against the Vikings. But, when they got their limited scoring chances, they made the most of them.
Their first score came after a blown coverage and a 56-yard pass to Dez Bryant that Dallas turned into a touchdown. When the Cowboys got a turnover deep in Vikings territory on an Adam Thielen fumble, they scored a touchdown on the next play. When they got a short field after another awful punt by Jeff Locke – one of many on the night – Ezekiel Elliott broke a 30-yard run that got Dallas in immediate scoring position.
Missing out on the chances to make the game-changing plays cost the Vikings … again.
“We have to find a way to win even when we do shoot ourselves in the foot,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “It was a tough one. I don’t know what to say.”
In the end, having a solid game in which Dallas was limited to just 49 plays from scrimmage – 20 fewer than the Vikings – didn’t seem to matter.
There are no moral victories in the NFL and this was one of those games that had a lot of players upset and shaking their heads that they let another game slip away from them late.
“We did some good things, but if you don’t win, none of that really matters,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We’re not a team that makes excuses. We had our chances to win the game and we didn’t. It’s as simple as that.”
One of the more upset players following the game was defensive end Brian Robison, who made a game-changing strip sack on Dak Prescott at the end of the third quarter that could have turned the tide of the game heavily in the Vikings’ favor.
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Robison, like many other players this season, was disgusted with how the game was called by the officials. While the teams combined for 18 penalties, he thought there were key moments that the refs kept their flags in their pocket on flagrant penalties, including the game-ending play on a two-point conversion when Sam Bradford was struck in the head.
“I am just going to say it, I’m sick and tired of the reffing in this league right now,” Robison said. “I’m sick and tired of it. You’ve got holding calls all over the place that people don’t want to call. Bradford gets hit in the face at the end of the game and you don’t call it. I’m not laying this loss on reffing, but at some point it has to get better.”
It wasn’t that the refs weren’t calling penalties. It was the timing of the ones they didn’t call that was the killer.
“The problem is the costly penalties that don’t get called,” Robison said. “You look at the play that Dak scramble. There should have been penalties called on that play and they don’t. At the end of the day, that’s a game-changing play.”
While the loss is devastating in many respects – it drops Minnesota to .500 at 6-6 and gave them yet another conference loss, which is another tie-breaker nail in their coffin.
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It would seem clear that, if the Vikings want to make the playoffs, the only way to get that done will almost certainly be to win their final four games.
“We can’t dwell on this,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “We don’t have to time to do that. We have another game coming up next week and we need to be ready for that game. We didn’t get it done tonight, but as long as we still have a shot, we’re going to keep fighting.”