“Disappointing” was how Mike Zimmer and Kirk Cousins described the Minnesota Vikings’ 30-23 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“A disappointing loss,” said Zimmer. “You know, we talked all week about controlling the game with our tempo and being able to run the football, and they ran the ball way better than we did today.”
“I’m frustrated, disappointed,” said Cousins. “Had an opportunity at home, and it’s disappointing because a win here today you do control your destiny, and you’re in a better place.”
It was disappointing because they entered their game against the Rams in control of their playoff fate and left it with roughly a 10% chance of making the postseason, according to multiple oddsmakers. Disappointing because they lacked energy at a point in the season when they needed it most.
“I felt it as soon as I came into the locker room,” Justin Jefferson said when asked about the lack of energy in the building. “I was trying to pick up the guys and everything.”
US Bank Stadium was the quietest it’s been all season. Even in the introductions, it felt subdued. Maybe it’s because Minnesota’s last two wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears weren’t all that convincing. Perhaps the loss seemed preordained. The Rams entered the game as three-point favorites, are coached by an offensive mastermind, and have a loaded team with Super Bowl aspirations. But it also could just be that everyone in attendance got after it on Saturday night.
“Christmas hangover,” Anthony Barr posited when asked about the crowd. “I don’t know what y’all did last night. Too much fun, I guess.”
Whatever it was, the Vikings should have been able to create their own energy. They entered the game 7-7, knowing one of the NFC’s best teams was coming to town. If Minnesota had beaten LA, they get a Green Bay Packers team that has already clinched the division and a Chicago Bears team that’s got nothing to play for to end the season. Winning at Lambeau is always challenging, but the Vikings beat them earlier this year. And the Chicago game last week shouldn’t have been as close as it was.
Yet, somehow, the Vikings couldn’t fully ignite the US Bank Stadium crowd.
It’s not as though the fans in attendance didn’t react when the Vikings gave them a reason to. The crowd noise hovered around 120 decibels when Barr picked off a Matthew Stafford pass that was tipped by Dalvin Tomlinson early in the third quarter. Alexander Mattison ran the ball in on the next play to make it 13-10. ESPN gave LA an 87% chance of winning before the pick and a 53% chance after it. The mostly purple crowd was fully engaged.
But just as the Vikings got the momentum rolling, they made their most significant blunder. After forcing a three-and-out on the next LA possession, Minnesota failed to get a first down and then gave up a 61-yard punt return touchdown to Brandon Powell. It was the Rams’ first punt return touchdown since 2015. The Rams were in St. Louis at the time.
LA’s odds of winning after the punt return touchdown: 86%.
That was the theme of this game. The Vikings never took control.
Barr’s first interception came deep in Vikings territory with the Rams up 10-0. But Greg Gaines sacked Cousins on the first play after the pick, and Adam Thielen’s ankle was re-injured two plays later on third down. The Vikings ended up settling for a field goal.
Xavier Woods picked off Stafford deep with the Rams up 13-3; the Vikings ran six plays for 11 yards and punted it.
That sequence after Barr’s first pick was a microcosm of the entire game. Minnesota rarely capitalized on LA’s mistakes. Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was their fault. But ultimately, they had plenty of chances to win this game and control their playoff fate entering Week 17. Instead, they went 2/5 in the red zone and settled for two field goals.
“There were plenty of times to be aggressive and take our shots,” said Cousins, “we just didn’t make it happen when they were called.”
The Vikings outgained LA 361 to 365. They won the turnover battle three to one. They even split possession right down the middle. But they let Sony Michel run for 131 yards and couldn’t win a game where Stafford threw for 197 yards and three picks. They had multiple opportunities to take control of this game, and they didn’t.
Minnesota held their playoff fate in their hands and relinquished it. Disappointing is the most generous way to describe what happened on Sunday.