The Vikings Lost A Game Of Inches Because They Turned It Into the Longest Yard

Photo credit: Sam Greene/The Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

The “tush push” has become en vogue ever since the Philadelphia Eagles started using it so successfully that they’ve taken to referring to third-and-one as first-and-nine. But while it’s nearly automatic for Jalen Hurts and Co., it’s a competitive play for the rest of the league. On Saturday, the Minnesota Vikings became the first team to fail consecutive tush pushes since the start of 2022.

“Anytime you’re inside a couple feet, and then looking at about four or five inches there, we don’t really want to have to turn around and extend the ball and hand off another ball,” Kevin O’Connell said after the game, weighing the pros and cons of handing the ball off versus running another quarterback sneak. “I trust our guys in that moment to execute with a push right there.”

Had the Vikings won their first game in Cincinnati since 1992, they would have been in command of their playoff destiny. The Detroit Lions slipped up against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in two of the past three weeks, creating an opportunity for Minnesota to win the division. Instead, the Vikings will play Detroit twice and Green Bay once to finish the regular season with their postseason fate hanging in the balance.

“It’s definitely tough,” Jefferson said after the loss. “It’s a game of inches. We had a few inches to get on that fourth down, and we weren’t able to get it. That’s the tough part, especially when the defense gives us the ball in overtime. We have an opportunity to go down and score and put the game away, and we can’t get a few inches to continue the drive.”

It’s only natural to focus on Minnesota’s consecutive tush pushes in overtime because they nearly converted the first one and clearly missed the second. But the Vikings made things unnecessarily difficult on themselves in the first half.

Nick Mullens led Minnesota on a 14-play, 70-yard drive with the team up 7-3. However, he forced the ball to Jefferson, who returned to play after taking a brutal hit last week that sent him to the hospital. Mike Hilton intercepted the errant throw at the one-yard line.

“I saw some space out front, and I just have to be careful, I have to be disciplined,” Mullens said. “Knowing we have points on the board, that’s a mistake I’ll regret…. You can’t turn the ball over in the red zone.”

The Cincinnati Bengals failed to score on that drive, punting it away after Danielle Hunter crushed old friend Jake Browning on second-and-10, forcing a third-and-24 from the Cincinnati 20. The Bengals punted the ball away, and Minnesota had second-and-one on Cincinnati’s 16-yard line with 38 seconds left. But Mullens took a six-yard sack, making it third-and-seven. Then he compounded the mistake by trying to throw the ball away instead of taking another sack, and B.J. Hill picked it.

Minnesota entered the half up 7-3, but they should have had at least six more points.

“I was trying to get rid of the football,” Mullens explained. “I don’t want to take sacks. Analytically, probably smarter to just take the sack, but I was just trying to get rid of the football.”

The Vikings scored a touchdown on their first possession after halftime, and they scored another three points after Akayleb Evans picked off Browing’s pass intended for old friend Irv Smith Jr. on Cincinnati’s ensuing drive. According to ESPN analytics, Minnesota had a 91% chance of winning the game after Greg Joseph converted a 39-yard field goal to put the Vikings up 17-3 in the third quarter.

Minnesota’s defense had not given up a touchdown in 29 consecutive possessions entering the fourth quarter. But Tee Higgins made a miracle catch at the start of the fourth quarter to make it 17-10, and Browning led the Bengals on an 11-play, 63-yard drive to tie the game 17-17 with 7:46 to go. Browning hit Ja’Marr Chase to convert a third-and-21 in the middle of the drive. Chase suffered an injury on the play and did not return to the game.

The Vikings responded with a seven-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by Jordan Addison’s second touchdown catch. Addison benefitted from Jefferson’s return, leading the Vikings with 111 yards receiving.

“There was coverage being dictated with some doubles and some combo coverages to him, and Jordan took advantage of it,” O’Connell said. “He was single-covered on that touchdown, screened in underneath there, and Nick [Mullens] found him. What a catch and finish there.”

ESPN gave the Vikings an 87% chance to win when they were up 24-17 with a minute left in the fourth quarter. But Minnesota gave up a 13-yard pass to Higgins on second-and-seven immediately after the two-minute warning, and he reeled in a 21-yard pass to tie the score 24-24 with 39 seconds left.

Cincinnati went three-and-out on their first overtime possession, but the Vikings failed two quarterback sneaks, and Browning converted a third-and-nine pass to Tyler Boyd on a dig route across the field, similar to D.J. Moore’s crucial reception in the Week 12 Chicago Bears game. Evan McPherson converted a 29-yard field goal three plays later.

“I’ve been cut my fair share of times,” Browning said after the game, admitting he was excited to beat the Vikings after they cut him in 2021, “but that was probably the [worst] one.”

The Vikings last won in Cincinnati in 1992. They had Rich Gannon under center. Anthony Carter, Cris Carter, and Steve Jordan were his primary targets. Mike Tice was a tight end; Jack Del Rio was their middle linebacker. The Bengals haven’t had much success in between, save for recently under Joe Burrow. But they had a reputation for employing unsavory characters like Pacman Jones and Joe Mixon. Perhaps, then, it’s fitting that the Vikings keep losing to them.

Football is a game of inches, but it feels like the Vikings turn everything into the longest yard.

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