As I’ve had to point out over and over this season, when a game comes down to the final play, you can decide whatever you think was the most crucial moment and blame that. You could blame the myriad of bad calls on both sides for the game going into overtime. You could blame the Minnesota Vikings’ offense going three-and-out after both Lamar Jackson interceptions. It could have come down to the extra point the Vikings kicked after scoring that game-tying touchdown. It sort of waters everything down. If everything is to blame, is anything?
But a pattern has been revealed in several of these games. The Vikings experience some hardship, whether it’s a rough penalty, an unlucky break, or bad play. Sometimes it’s their fault, sometimes it isn’t, but things will happen throughout a game. Nobody survived 60 minutes without making a single bad play. The differentiating factor between the Vikings and genuine contenders is how they respond.
The Vikings have been abysmal in two-minute drills this season. Through eight games, they have allowed 45 points in the final two minutes of the first half. That is a 5.6 point average. So, if you are a bettor, you can hang your hat on the Vikings giving up a field goal or touchdown before halftime in almost every game. The reasons for this probably bear deeper investigation, but poor tackling, poor angles, and generally soft coverage all contribute.
On offense, they puke up one disaster after another at the end of the first half. Time after time, the Vikings get the ball and a reasonable scoring opportunity, but instead, they push themselves backward. If it’s not penalties, it’s hyper-conservative play-calling removing those opportunities altogether.
In Week 8, their two-minute disaster took on a little bait-and-switch dynamic. Camryn Bynum notched the first interception of his career, setting the Vikings up in the red zone, up 14-3. From there, they ran the ball for a loss of one on first down. Kirk Cousins threw the ball away under duress on second down, and he and Jefferson couldn’t connect on third down. The Vikings lost a yard, took just 30 seconds off the clock, and kicked.
The Baltimore Ravens took advantage of an underthrown defensive pass interference call to score an easy touchdown, bringing the score to 17-10. Just like in the other games, a different two-minute outcome would have changed the outcome. The Cleveland Browns scored 11 of their 14 points within two minutes of halftime. The Arizona Cardinals’ 62-yard halftime field goal was enabled by a tackling meltdown, and that game ended 34-33. This game ended 34-31. Suppose the Vikings could have scored a touchdown on their opportunity or limited the Ravens to a field goal, the end of the game changes entirely. These points have continually come back to punish the Vikings.
Emotionally, that 11-point swing has a significant impact on the game. The halftime locker room is an emotional gut-check, not a schematic one. Halftime adjustments are overrated, but emotional conversations take the forefront. After leading the Ravens 17-3, the Vikings gave up a sneaky touchdown to cut their lead in half. That’s a similar tune to previous games, and the young defense felt it. That touchdown turned into several touchdowns.
The Vikings might struggle in their hurry-up package, which would be a flaw. But better teams overcome those flaws. Minnesota spirals. The familiar tune of games is for them to build a two-score lead, fail to distance that lead, melt down around halftime, and then the game comes down to the final minutes. It makes things extra frustrating to see them outplay their opponent but fail to keep it up. That second/third-quarter spiral has let up leads of 21-7 in Week 2, 28-17 win Week 6, a two-score meltdown within two minutes of the end of Week 5, and now this game.
Kene Nwangwu took a kick return to the house to extend the Vikings’ lead, but the defense couldn’t take advantage of that momentum. The Ravens started the second half with drives of 75, 72, and 82 yards, all for touchdowns. Minnesota punted on both drives in between those three. Baltimore ran 35 plays in three drives, entirely sapping the defense of any energy they had left.
Yes, Minnesota drove down the field for the final game-tying touchdown. But when the defense came up with another turnover, an Anthony Barr hero play that gave the Vikings life, the offense walked off the field after three plays and one yard. Those turnovers disrupt the usual flow of the game. Offensive players are studying their tablets or simply waiting for their turn. When the punt team comes out, you have a moment to collect yourself and get ready to play. After a turnover, you have to shift your headspace immediately.
The Vikings cannot withstand changes to the usual ebb and flow of the game, even positive ones. That comes down to several things: coaching, veteran leadership, and the focus level of the players themselves. If Minnesota wants to turn this season around, they’ll have to commit to being on their toes and ready to play at every moment. In the NFL, you can’t afford to lose focus.
The Kirk Cousins Chaos Meter
All year, we have been tracking Kirk Cousins’ progress toward a possible extension or a lame-duck situation in the 2022 offseason. To measure his week-to-week consistency, we’ve turned to this meter, which measures chaos. A game full of checkdowns and conservative play will register low. A game with interceptions, fumbles, and other goofy disasters will register high. The ideal Cousins game is somewhere in the middle.
The yellow is meant for games where the result is neither the fault nor the credit of Kirk Cousins. He was under a disappointing amount of duress, especially with Mason Cole starting for Garrett Bradbury and Blake Brandel playing some in relief of Oli Udoh. By his own admission, he missed some throws. But he also had some clutch moments, like Justin Jefferson‘s 50-yard touchdown and a game-saving fourth-and-nine conversion.
Pressure and play-calling seemed to influence this game more than Cousins did. As always, the truth will be found in the tape when it comes out. But for now, we’ll place the game in the hands of someone else. That’s both to Cousins’ credit and his detriment. On the one hand, he didn’t destroy the offense like he did last week against the Dallas Cowboys. On the other, you would hope that the quarterback sold to the fans as a franchise option would make some more difficult plays. For this one, it’s probably best to aim your crosshairs elsewhere.