If these games are all starting to look the same to you, it’s because they are.
There’s the game we saw them play against the Dallas Cowboys, where they slug it out with an inferior team and leave things to chance on the last play. Then there’s Sunday’s 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, which was a mix of the Cincinnati Bengals game in Week 1, the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, and the Carolina Panthers game before the bye week.
The offense came alive early, but the Minnesota Vikings couldn’t hold onto an early lead and lost it in overtime. Sound familiar?
The through-line with all these games is that the Vikings haven’t developed a killer instinct.
There was a semblance of it in the Seattle Seahawks game. They got down early, took a lead into halftime, and never relinquished it. But even then, they didn’t score a touchdown in the second half.
The Vikings went up 20-7 in Glendale and entered halftime down 24-23. They were up 25-17 after three quarters in Charlotte and had to win in overtime. On Sunday, they were up 24-17 going into the fourth quarter and lost on a field goal in overtime.
The Vikings had plenty of opportunities to put the Ravens away.
They were up 14-3 early in the second quarter but had two straight three-and-outs. Then Camryn Bynum, who was filling in for Harrison Smith (COVID), had a highlight-reel interception to give them another chance to add to the lead. They ran the ball and lost a yard. Cousins missed Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson on the next two plays. The result? They settled for a field goal.
“Three-and-outs don’t help,” Kirk Cousins said after the game. “We have to talk about that first.”
Then Kene Nwangwu takes the second-half kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, putting the Vikings up 24-10. Minnesota’s response? They gave up a touchdown on the next drive, ran seven plays, and punted it. The drive would have been a three-and-out, except Nwangwu converted a fake punt. The next play? False start on Brian O’Neill. Then they were forced to call their first timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty. The drive stalls out.
“You hope when you do something like that you get some momentum going,” said Mike Zimmer. “Typically, you go down and score. We didn’t.”
The failure to capitalize on the fake punt was the turning point in the game. After the stalled drive, the Vikings allowed an 18-play, 10:17-minute drive to wear down the defense. Baltimore scored again to tie the game 24-24. Suddenly, they had the momentum. A patented last-ditch two-minute Vikings drive forced overtime, but a game that they could have sealed early in the first half was suddenly in jeopardy.
They still had a chance in overtime when Anthony Barr tipped Lamar Jackson’s pass at Minnesota’s 38-yard line and reeled in the interception. The Ravens were marching down the field at the time. Barr not only stopped their drive but gave the Vikings an opportunity to escape Baltimore with a win.
Instead, they ran three plays, only gained a yard, and punted the ball away.
The Ravens responded with a 10-play, 72-yard drive. Justin Tucker won it on a 36-yard field goal. A gimme for one of the best kickers in the league.
It’s not as though the Vikings aren’t aware of this folly. They know they have to use every opportunity they have to put the game away. Bynum made a great play. So did Nwangwu and Barr. Adam Thielen talked about stepping on the gas after the Cowboys beat them on Sunday Night Football. Andre Patterson brought it up during the week. Cousins repeated that refrain postgame on Sanday.
“We have to capitalize on turnovers, the opportunities we get,” he said. “We have to make plays and score points and distance ourselves. We have not done that enough to this point.”
The Vikings know what’s going on here. Nobody is being willfully ignorant. They badly want to turn the season around before it’s too late. Every player says they put in too much work during the week to lose leads on Sunday. They feel they’re good enough to break free from their current fate.
But they’re 3-5. The Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay Packers loom. The best teams in the league score touchdowns when they turn the ball over and convert fake punts. They don’t blow big leads and put inferior opponents away early.
They have a killer instinct. Something the Vikings haven’t developed yet.