Mike Zimmer has preached since Day 1 of his tenure that each of football’s three phases — offense, defense and the oft-overlooked special teams — carry weight.
Sunday’s loss proved that special teams can make or break a game, or a season, as a pair of special teams gaffes cost the Vikings in the second half, while Kansas City’s Harrison Butker came through with two long field goals in the final three minutes: one to tie, another to win.
But the entire second half was marked by special teams moments, starting with the second-half kickoff.
- Flashy rookie Mecole Hardman returned Dan Bailey’s kick beyond the 30-yard line, his best return of the day, before having the ball stripped by Mike Hughes and recovered by Holton Hill in his first game back from suspension. Minnesota was given a short field to start the second half on the game’s only turnover.
- The Vikings scored quickly to take a six-point lead, but Bailey missed his second extra point of the year and first since Week 2. “You get to the end of the game,” said Kirk Cousins, referring to the missed extra point, “and you look back at different plays, but as you’re playing you just go to the next play. You just focus on what you have to do next and how we react to the previous play.”
- Later in the third quarter, Kansas City scored 10 unanswered points to take a 20-16 lead, including Damien Williams’ 91-yard touchdown run and Butker’s 45-yard field goal.
- Minnesota retook the lead at 22-20 after Kirk Cousins’ touchdown strike to Kyle Rudolph, but not wanting to give the Chiefs a chance to lead on a field goal, the Vikings were unable to chase the point that Bailey lost earlier, settling for another extra point. So when Matt Moore was sacked at the Vikings’ 36-yard line to set up 4th and 27, the Chiefs had the ability to settle for a low-percentage field goal instead of a lower-percentage conversion attempt. Butker converted his season-long to tie it up.
- Britton Colquitt was brilliant on his first seven punts of the day, averaging almost 47 yards with just 17 return yards against. But perhaps the domino effect of Hardman’s earlier fumble led to Colquitt’s ill-timed mistake. The Chiefs inserted Tyreek Hill at punt returner, both to provide a threatening return presence and maybe to safeguard against another fumble from Hardman, who was nearly stripped a second time in the game. “You know if he touches the ball then something really dangerous could happen,” Colquitt said. The veteran punter tried to kick it toward the sideline but hooked it out of bounds for a 27-yard punt, his shortest of the year. Kansas City took over just a few yards from Butker’s field goal range.
- After a clutch third-down conversion, Butker drilled his 44-yard game-winning kick despite having it tipped by Danielle Hunter. “We got our hand on the last kick,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks. “Can’t really ask for much more.”
While the Vikings arguably got outplayed in both the offensive and defensive phases, they could’ve won the game with some clutch special teams play. And likewise, their special teams play earlier in the game could have been enough to swing the outcome.