When the Vikings struggled during the month of December – dropping three of four games to jeopardize their first-round bye – the one thing they had in common was poor play in the first half. If last weekend's wild card playoff games proved anything, they can't have a repeat performance in the playoffs or they will be one-and-done.
All four of the wild card games were marked by turnovers and teams taking advantage of them to win games. In each instance, the team that struggled early saw their season end earlier than anticipated.
In the Cincinnati-New York Jets matchup, the Bengals did just about everything wrong that a playoff team could in the first half. They had a chance to take control of the game early, but a fumble deep in Jets territory killed an early touchdown chance and a pair of ridiculous challenges left the Bengals short on timeouts and out of challenges by the end of the first quarter. The Jets were able to sandwich a pair of touchdowns around a Carson Palmer interception to score 14 points in a six-minute span and take a 14-7 lead. Once with the lead, the Jets were able to impose their will in their running game, expanding their lead to 21-7 in a 24-14 win.
The Cowboys exploded for 27 points in the second quarter of their contest with the Eagles Saturday to blow their game open and quickly turn their rematch into another laugher. The Cowboys scored five times in the quarter, as the Eagles combined offensive struggles with a key turnover that let Dallas take control of the game and never let the Eagles back into the position to challenge for the win.
In perhaps the biggest stunner of the weekend, the Ravens scored on their first offensive play of the game and, thanks to a Tom Brady interception early, built a 24-0 lead in the first quarter to leave the Patriots stunned and far behind. New England never recovered and, armed with the big lead, the Ravens ran early and often on their way to a 33-14 win.
In the final game of the weekend, the Packers committed turnovers of two of their first three offensive plays, both of which resulted in Arizona touchdowns, as the Cardinals built an early 17-0 lead. While the Packers were able to fight back and force the game to overtime, they spent the rest of the game just trying to make up for the early mistakes. At no point did the Packers ever get the lead and it was yet another turnover in the opening moments of overtime that led to the game-winning score in a 51-45 Cardinals win.
The Vikings know that they have to play relatively error-free ball against the Cowboys to advance in the NFC playoffs, but the precedent has already been set in this year's postseason tournament – get off to a slow start and you will be going home.
The Vikings will have some momentum on their side entering the game. The home fans at the Metrodome are sure to be noisy and raucous and the Vikings will have the chance to make the fans part of the action if they can get off to a quick start. However, if the Vikings repeat their recent trend of taking time to heat up, as a quartet of playoff ejectees last weekend can testify, they will be setting themselves up for failure.
Good teams take advantage of mistakes and make an opponent pay for it. There are no slouches left in the playoffs. The blueprint for success and failure is out there. It will be up to the Vikings to make sure they come out strong, because if they don't it could turn into a long day on the Metrodome turf.
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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