It might not be a very Merry Christmas for Mike Zimmer, Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings.
Their run for the previous 10 weeks, where they went 8-2 and earned a playoff berth, has been largely about shattering narratives. Namely, that the offensive is more resilient than last year’s, Kirk Cousins had turned a corner from his mistake-prone ways, and Minnesota could win football games by its offense carrying its defense, instead of vice versa.
For 10 weeks that held up. But Monday night the old habits resurfaced for the Vikings’ offense. Their quarterback looked hesitant in the pocket, well before a relentless Packers pass rush put him on his back five times. From the game’s opening series, Cousins was off. On his first third down of the game, Cousins threw late and high to an open C.J. Ham, likely costing the Vikings a game-opening touchdown and setting the tone for the evening.
“I’m not going to get into this Kirk Cousins on Monday Night thing, and all this stuff,” Zimmer said, referring to Cousins’ well-publicized 0-9 record on Monday nights. “Offensively, we didn’t play as well as we can play. I’ll say that, OK?”
Not even garbage time could rescue Cousins’ stat line, which concluded at 16 for 31, 122 yards, one interception and one touchdown. His final three possessions ended in a 4th and 14 punt, a 4th and 24 punt and a dropped pass on 4th and 15 that would’ve been nullified anyway due to a blindside block.
Minnesota was averaging 6.0 yards per play this season, fourth in the NFL. Monday they posted 2.6 yards per play, the third worst figure in the NFL this season.
The #Vikings posted a meager 2.6 yards per play tonight. Only two performances have been worse this NFL regular season, both by the Jets:
Luke Falk in Week 3 (2.2 ypp)
Luke Falk in Week 5 (2.3 ypp)
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) December 24, 2019
“That would be the silver lining, just learning from the mistakes so they get corrected,” Cousins said, “and when the games up ahead are being played they don’t repeat themselves.”
At times this season the Vikings’ offense has been propelled by timely hurry-up drives, but not on Monday. Leading 10-6 with 1:44 left in the first half, Cousins inherited the ball at his own 10-yard line with multiple timeouts, a chance to add at least three points before the half. But the play-calling didn’t display much confidence in the Vikings’ anemic offense. Minnesota ran it twice, Cousins nearly threw an interception on third down, and the Vikings punted it back to the Packers. Green Bay added a field goal before halftime to make it 10-9.
“Problem is when you don’t convert on third down, you don’t even get to see [the hurry-up] because we hurry up one to two plays and then we’re off the field again,” Cousins said. “We did hurry up trying to get something going. It was a three-and-out and we never got really into that rhythm.”
The Vikings have only beaten one team this year that currently possesses a winning record: 8-7 Philadelphia. A win Monday could’ve set the Vikings up nicely to draw the inferior Eagles in the Wild Card round. Now they face a likely matchup in New Orleans against the red-hot Saints in a playoff rematch of the 2017 Minneapolis Miracle.
Thanks to San Francisco’s victory Saturday night over the Los Angeles Rams, the Vikings (10-5) are a playoff team, softening the blow ever so slightly of Monday’s debacle. But it’s the last meaningful game for Minnesota before the playoffs, giving fans a bitter final taste. The Week 17 tilt against the Chicago Bears turns into a glorified preseason game. With two running backs missing the game Monday and two valuable linebackers getting hurt during it — Eric Kendricks (quad) and Anthony Barr (undisclosed) — the Vikings would be wise to sit any starters needing rest. Even a victory over the disqualified Bears may not be enough to renew the energy that was swirling around the Vikings after they pounded the Chargers 39-10 on Dec. 15.
For the second time this season, the Packers deflated the Vikings — their first season sweep since 2014. For the first time after a home game this season, the locker room was stoic. No music coming from Pat Elflein’s locker after the offensive line struggled to protect Cousins from Za’Darius Smith, quickly becoming one of the top pass-rushers in the division along with Danielle Hunter and Khalil Mack. No traditional press conference with Dalvin Cook, who missed the game with two upper-body injuries. No smiles whatsoever from Zimmer, who couldn’t have been happy with the way his offense routinely forced the defense back onto the field against his nemesis Aaron Rodgers.
“I’ll have to look at the tape and see and try to figure it out,” Zimmer said. “We just weren’t as effective [on offense] as we normally are.”
Fans came out to U.S. Bank Stadium in record numbers to see if Cousins could dissolve the remaining whispers of his inadequacy. To his credit, he’d won a pair of primetime games this season against Washington and Dallas. He’d thrown 25 touchdowns against just five interceptions while reducing his lost fumbles and stereotypical game-altering errors. He proved in Week 11 he could mount a comeback, and he proved he could thrive without the help of Adam Thielen, who missed nearly half the season with a hamstring injury.
It seemed like he’d done enough to change the perception.
But the haunting themes of 2018 appeared to return as Cousins — a la Sam Darnold — might’ve been seeing ghosts against the Green Bay defense. He only completed two passes for more than 10 yards.
“He was under pretty good pressure,” Zimmer said, offering a mild critique of the offensive line.
Sunday’s game against the Bears will not hold the same stakes as last season, when Cousins melted under the pressure of a win-and-in Week 17 to send the Vikings home for the offseason. His next true test will be Jan. 4 or 5 against a winning team on the road. If he’s unable to win there, Cousins may lose all the ground he gained this season with his detractors.