CHICAGO – All they needed were three minutes of solid football. Just one defensive stand and a dreary Sunday afternoon spent in the rain would suddenly give way to a cheerier outlook that maybe things aren’t so bad after all.
The Vikings heard the sky was falling for an entire week after their no-show performance against Detroit in the season opener. But suddenly, they found themselves in position to salvage a split in their two-game NFC North road trip to start the 2013 season.
With a manageable schedule on tap the next three games, it almost felt safe to remove our collective finger from the panic button. The Vikings just had to close the deal.
And then … Poof!
“We’ve got to play a full game if we want to win in this league,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said.
The Vikings absorbed a painful reminder of that edict with a gut punch that whitewashed some positive developments Sunday. A defensive meltdown culminated with a touchdown pass by the Chicago Bears with 10 seconds remaining, leaving the Vikings to stew in their locker room after a 31-30 loss at Soldier Field.
The last-second touchdown dropped the Vikings to 0-2 and raised questions about who was to blame for Martellus Bennett’s 16-yard scoring catch. The players appeared confused before the snap with cornerback Chris Cook signaling for help.
Cook declined to speak to reporters after the game and his defensive teammates clearly were upset, though they chose their words carefully. Middle linebacker Erin Henderson admitted he was surprised by the play call on that final play, but he said players still must perform their job.
“Coaches call plays and players have to go out there and make plays,” he said.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier accepted full responsibility for the final drive, which began at the Chicago 34. Jay Cutler shredded the Vikings defense as the Bears went 66 yards on 10 plays in 3 minutes, 5 seconds.
“Personally, I have to do a better job guiding our team in that last sequence,” Frazier said.
Instead, Soldier Field remained a house of horrors for the Vikings, who have now lost 12 of their past 13 visits. The Vikings also realize they’ve dug themselves a hole before even playing a home game.
Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams that start 0-2 have made the playoffs just 11.6 percent of the time. That list includes the 2008 Vikings, but Sunday was not the time to start analyzing playoff scenarios.
“We just need to get back to accountability within the team from position to position,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Just clean up messes. There’s just stuff across the board that needs to be improved.”
The Vikings provided another mixed-bag performance that would look different had they avoided that final-drive collapse. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson opened the game with a 105-yard kickoff return. The defense forced four turnovers, including a 61-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Brian Robison and a Kevin Williams interception in the end zone.
Quarterback Christian Ponder recovered after throwing a pick-six in the second quarter to give his team a chance to win. One week after turning the ball over four times against Detroit, Ponder’s status seemed tenuous after Tim Jennings intercepted a pass intended for Jerome Simpson and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown.
“That’s a terrible play,” Ponder said.
Ponder responded with a perfectly placed 20-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph on the ensuing drive. He also made a few key runs in the second half as the Vikings finally established an offensive rhythm and balance. Ponder passed for 227 yards while Adrian Peterson quietly rushed for 100 yards.
Their offense failed to capitalize fully on two fourth-quarter takeaways, though. The Vikings managed only six points on two Blair Walsh field goals, which kept the Bears in the game.
“That right there is what hurt the most,” Peterson said. “I tried my hardest, [thinking], ‘Just don’t let this come back to haunt us.’ In those situations offensively we have to come through and make a big play. We do that and we win.”
The Vikings had the ball at the Chicago 4-yard line on their last possession. But Ponder missed Rudolph on a pass and Peterson got tackled for no gain on third down. Frazier didn’t second-guess offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s decision to run on third down.
“Sometimes when you give the ball to Adrian on third-and-4, you don’t feel like you need to pass,” he said. “We still had our opportunities to win that ballgame.”
They just needed a stop on Chicago’s final drive. Instead, the defense — and coaches, apparently — crumbled at the worst possible time.
“Obviously there was something wrong,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “I don’t know what it was. Whether it’s a call, whether it’s a player, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to make a play.”