The Minnesota Vikings have plenty of free time to ponder where it all went wrong as the playoffs get set to begin. There are endless plays, games, sequences, and decisions to point to, but things really came off the tracks for Minnesota in their Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Minnesota was coming off a gutting Week 1 overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Greg Joseph had blasted a 53-yard field goal through the uprights as time expired to send the game into the extra session. It looked like the Vikings were on the doorstep of getting right back into field goal range in overtime before Dalvin Cook fumbled. Cincinnati pounced on the opportunity and won. The Vikings immediately went behind the 8-ball at 0-1.
Week 2 against the Cardinals represented a clean slate for Mike Zimmer’s team to pick up a road win in the desert. The shootout began early as Kirk Cousins connected with K.J. Osborn on a 64-yard touchdown just 44 seconds into the game. Then the see-saw battle began.
After all the momentum swings and highlight-reel plays, the game came down to Joseph’s 37-yard field goal attempt from straightaway. He had just punched through a 52-yarder earlier in the fourth quarter to propel the Vikings ahead, 33-31. Now they needed one more kick from chip-shot range. Despite the early season success, many fans had flashbacks to shanks of yore. Their nightmarish thoughts became a reality (again) when Joseph missed the kick, and the Vikings lost, 34-33. It’s not all on Joseph — the Vikings had other chances to close the game out — but it was that loss that set the tone for the season.
Minnesota dropped to 0-2 with a pair of crushing defeats. The mental toll that takes on a team, regardless of what they will say in front of cameras, is enormous. A year of optimism at the outset quickly shifted to, Really? and Here we go again. There were still 15 games remaining for the Vikings, but there’s no doubt that game weighed heavily, both mentally and physically. After the loss, then-head coach Mike Zimmer seemed flabbergasted in his postgame press conference, despite still lending support to Joseph.
“I felt good about that kick,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I knew he had missed the extra point earlier, but he has been kicking good, we are indoors, perfect surface. I am thinking this should be an easy one here. He just has to continue to be more consistent.”
The Vikings said all the right things, but this game was as deflating as it gets. And set a tone it did — for the whole rest of the season.
Minnesota finished the year 8-9. Eight of the nine losses were by one possession. While they won their fair share of close games, the heartbreaking losses piled up to historic levels. Time and again, the Vikings found their fate hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter. The two early-season losses to the Bengals and Cardinals diminished some of that confidence despite their efforts to rebound.
From another perspective, those coin-flip games produced two playoff teams in the Bengals and the Cardinals. For both teams, it’s their first playoff appearance in a while. While those early-season, nail-biting wins against the Vikings don’t get all the credit in a 17-game season, they were confidence boosters for both teams to help jump-start their season. Conversely, Minnesota fans were left expecting more of the same old disappointment.
There’s a belief with many Vikings fans and Minnesota sports fans in general that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Optimism in the pre-season quickly shifts to pessimism and worried thoughts once the first domino falls in the wrong direction. For the Vikings, that first domino fell in Week 1. In Week 2, it was even worse. They went on to win in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks before losing at US Bank Stadium the following week to the Cleveland Browns in another one-possession game. The Arizona loss loomed largely.
Who knows what would’ve happened had that kick sailed through. Arizona started 7-0, and five of those wins were by at least two scores. Minnesota began the roller coaster ride as soon as that kick went wide. The Cardinals looked unstoppable in the first half of the year, but the Vikings showed their vulnerabilities.
Some moments, drives, and games dictate how a stretch of the season or a whole year can go. For the Vikings, it came in Week 2 on a missed kick against the Arizona Cardinals as time expired. That game left the Vikings and their fans with an empty feeling in the pit of their stomachs. They felt like the agonizing defeats of the past were inevitable again. It’s that culture and that mindset that needs to change. To change it, Minnesota will have to start making those last-minute drives, and game-winning kicks go in their favor.