Self-Inflicted Wounds Damage Vikings' Playoff Hopes in 17-15 Gut Punch

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

The last five games the Minnesota Vikings have played have been there for the taking. In four of them, they’ve led in the fourth quarter. In the other, they were tied.

Yet out of five straight coin flips, the Vikings have dropped four – the latest as a result of ill-timed penalties, special teams blunders and a perpetual habit of settling for field goal attempts.

Sam Bradford outplayed Dak Prescott. The Vikings had 21 first downs to Dallas’s 13. Ezekiel Elliott was shut down with the exception of one fourth quarter 30-yard run. The Vikings defense was flat-out brilliant, creating two turnovers and sacking Prescott three times. Dallas was 1 of 9 on third downs.

Minnesota was very likely the better team Thursday night. Without a coach, against the best team in football, the Vikings looked like they belonged – at least on one side of the football. But with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer receiving an impromptu promotion to head coach, the special teams units imploded, which won’t sit will with the interim leader.

Filling in for injured punt returner Marcus Sherels, Adam Thielen fumbled at the 8-yard line in the fourth quarter. Thielen’s mistake set up Dallas for a quick go-ahead touchdown. “He did that a couple weeks ago, putting his arm out like that,” said Priefer. “We thought we had it corrected, and it reared its ugly head again.”

Cordarrelle Patterson – making his punt returning debut – fumbled in the closing minutes and nearly cost the Vikings a chance to drive the field. He was bailed out by an Audie Cole recovery. “Cordarrelle looked uncomfortable, and that’s part of preparation,” Priefer said.

Punter Jeff Locke had a 32-yard average on seven punts, three of which had end-over-end spirals and bounced in the wrong direction. His penultimate punt gave the Cowboys a short field, which they turned into a field goal. Without that field goal, fans could be rejoicing over a game-winning touchdown at the end instead of ruing a missed 2-point conversion. “I don’t think our punter punted very well. He’s been having a great year. Very disappointing performance and he knows that,” said the fill-in coach.

Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen
Photo Credit: Kyle Hansen

Penalties also plagued the Vikings – some that were called and some that weren’t.

Minnesota was penalized eight times, and at least four of the flags severely impaired Minnesota’s chances of scoring points. A Patterson offensive pass interference call wiped away a huge gain and led to a punt. An Alex Boone hold wiped away a first down in the red zone. A T.J. Clemmings false start hijacked another red zone trip after Brian Robison strip sacked Prescott. Finally, and most vitally, Jeremiah Sirles moved early on the pivotal 2-point conversion with 25 seconds left, pushing the Vikings back to the 7-yard line for the try. “Obviously we’d prefer to have it on the 2,” said Bradford. “We really liked the call that we had when we had it there.”

The 2-point play was controversial for another reason as Bradford took a clear hand to the helmet/facemask as he released a pass that sailed out the back of the end zone. It arguably could have been ruled a facemask penalty or an illegal hit to the head, but neither were called. “[The official] told me that I did not get hit in the facemask,” said Bradford after the game.

It’s clear from the replay that Bradford’s facemask was hit — making the official sound foolish — but it’s also worth keeping in mind that the Vikings still would have needed to convert from the 3.5-yard line to tie, then win in overtime to make the argument worthwhile. Plus, Clemmings probably false started on the play, as well. You win some, you lose some.

This was not the Vikings’ only grievance with officials, though. Robison was livid after the game at the amount of holding calls that officials overlooked, not to mention the non-call against Bradford. “I’m sick and tired of refereeing in this league,” said Robison. “I’m sick and tired of it. You 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 the referees, but at some point it has to get better.”

It’s fair for a defensive player like Robison – who was terrific again – to feel a lack of justice in the game’s result. His unit was the best on the field, and for the umpteenth time, was hung out to dry by errors in the other two phases that left the defense hollowly accepting undeserved blame.

Officiating may have been an accomplice, but it was not the crook that robbed the Vikings of a much-needed victory. To find the robber, the Vikings need only look themselves in the mirror.

As basic as it sounds, the Vikings made more good plays in the game than Dallas. But the Cowboys made more great plays.

The Cowboys made more bad plays in the game than the Vikings. But the Vikings made more game-altering blunders.

The Vikings had no margin for error Thursday night, but it was errors that stunted their progress in what could have been the biggest win yet in US Bank Stadium.

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