In football media, we talk a lot about the idea of sustainability. Sooner or later, the peaks and valleys of a moment-to-moment football game will even out. Sacks are great, but pressures are the real measuring stick. Touchdowns and wins are the final goals, but overall production metrics like EPA reveal much more of the truth. Famously, close game results are not sustainable. Go 5-0 in one-score contests, and you’ll hear a cacophony of pundits predicting your demise. But what do you do when unsustainable things keep happening?
Sunday’s 34-28 walk-off victory in Charlotte was the latest in a string of frustrating, nerve-wracking, and exhausting games. Even the players are sick of constantly living on the knife’s edge. But it’s not like this is out of the team’s control. The games are sloppy and poorly executed. They are much closer than they ever have any right to be, but they are undeniably entertaining. For better or worse, that, too, is the identity of the Minnesota Vikings.
The offense can’t put together a complete game
The stat sheet of this game looks like some sort of mathematical error. Offensively, the Vikings put up 517 total yards on a team that was giving up 255 yards per game going in. Having an extra period helps, but the Vikings moved the ball even without that. Kirk Cousins threw two regulation touchdowns (and the walk-off strike to K.J. Osborn). But they still had a lull in the late first half of five failed drives, the last ending in a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. However, the Vikings only punted once for the rest of the game.
Before the game, I advocated that the Vikings use an extra offensive lineman on this episode of the Locked On Vikings podcast. I posited that it would be Rashod Hill, but he got injured on a field goal attempt, bringing out Mason Cole. I thought that would help Dalvin Cook find extra gaps in the run game and take some pressure off the ailing pass protection. The Vikings took my advice on a few plays, including Cook’s 16-yard touchdown.
They moved the ball on one of the best defenses in the league, and they marched down for a game-winning score with ease. So why does it still feel like the Vikings ran an anemic, conservative, plodding offense? Because they made some conservative decisions that almost blew the game. The Vikings kicked field goals on makeable 4th downs on both of their first possessions. With an eight-point lead, they ran the ball to Alexander Mattison on third-and-eight. He didn’t fumble this week, but he did lose three yards and knock the Vikings out of game-icing field goal position.
But even when they were aggressive, they failed in big moments. Thanks to some odd quirks of the scoreboard, the Vikings went for two-point conversions on their first two touchdowns. Both failed. They called a deep slot fade on a crucial third-and-four that fell incomplete. The overall 34-point result feels like it’s lying to us. To some degree, it is.
The defense can’t put one together either
The defense could not have gotten out to a hotter start in this game. The first play from scrimmage was a cathartic Bashaud Breeland interception. They allowed only one touchdown for the first 58:33 of game time. The other touchdown came on a blocked punt, and even the touchdown they did concede started with a fumble at Minnesota’s 18. Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore, and Co. could not move the ball against Mike Zimmer’s unit.
It was the closest thing to a truly complete game from the defense we have seen, though it was aided by a sickening amount of drops by Carolina’s skill players. Patrick Peterson gave up only one real play (an intermediate crossing route on 3rd and 10) before he left the game with a fourth-quarter hamstring injury. Breeland had one penalty and the aforementioned interception. The Vikings racked up four sacks, one leading to a turnover.
Sans Christian McCaffrey, Carolina’s run game struggled to get going. The Vikings held Chuba Hubbard under four yards per carry. By all accounts, it was a drubbing until about three minutes remained in the fourth quarter. Then the floor fell out like it has in so many games prior. Suddenly, Darnold scrambled for 30 yards en route to a field goal. On the ensuing drive, he converted two fourth downs to score the game-tying touchdown. Did anyone in their right minds believe that the Vikings would stop the two-point conversion try?
Thankfully the defense wouldn’t retake the field before Kirk Cousins’ heroics put it away. Like the offense, the defense displayed much more good than bad. But that is a difficult pill to swallow, considering how close the bad was to costing the Vikings the game.
The Kirk Cousins Chaos Meter
No matter who captains the Vikings this February, they’ll have a decision to make. Cousins has an untenable $45 million cap hit. The Vikings will have to either lower it via extension or feature him in a clearance sale. This season’s performance holds all of the sway over that decision. To track his progress, I’ve invented the Kirk Cousins Chaos Meter, which measures the chaotic nature of Kirk’s week-to-week performance.
You could argue that the meter could be anywhere on the spectrum. On the first drive inside the 10, Cousins threw a two-yard spot route on 3rd and 5. The Vikings kicked the field goal. During the second-quarter lull, it seemed like Cousins was content to coast into a 12-10 halftime. On the other hand, he threw a swing pass backward behind Cook, which bounced out of bounds for a loss of six. He fumbled a pump fake, although that was ruled an incomplete pass. But the meter respects that the final drive, an undeniably clutch 75-yard march for a 27-yard walk-off touchdown.
The NFL is an all-or-nothing game. A win is a win, and a loss is a loss. Everything in the world can go wrong, but if you have more points at the end, the standings see it mostly the same. The Vikings let the Panthers, a team they were mightily outplaying, back into the game on flukes, mistakes, and penalties (11 accepted for 98 yards). All that led to a moment we’ve seen just about every week: Cousins, the $31 million quarterback, had the ball and the game in his hands. He answered the call. That puts him in the green.
This is simply who the Vikings are. It’s not fluky if it happens every week. They are a team that can play well when things are normal, and they are a team that is unreasonably bad at keeping things normal. They exist in a perpetual state of having the ball with less than a minute with a possible field goal to win it. Regardless of the opponent — the now 6-0 Arizona Cardinals or the 0-6 Detroit Lions or the 3-3 Carolina Panthers — they all saw their games come down to the wire. After this many weeks, it’s no longer bad luck. It’s inconsistency.
Maybe someday, the Vikings will put together the mystical complete game that Eric Kendricks yearns for. For now, a win is a win. Moral defeats still count and bring the Vikings to .500. Happy bye week.