TAMPA, Fla. – The temperature was 40 degrees warmer, the bleachers much emptier and the other team’s quarterback far less experienced, but the Vikings found themselves in an all-too familiar situation Sunday.
Fourth quarter. Time ticking down. An uncomfortable lead, but a seemingly incompetent opponent.
The Vikings defense marooned Mike Glennon and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for three quarters, consistently stranding them on their side of the field and far, far away from the giant pirate ship anchored behind the end zone at Raymond James Stadium.
But before the Vikings knew it, the celebratory cannons were firing and Buccaneers rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was spiking the ball in the end zone — and seemingly through their hearts again.
For the second consecutive week, the Vikings had coughed up a late lead. But unlike their stunning last-second loss to the Buffalo Bills, this time the Vikings had enough time to do something about it.
“I’ve watched these guys all year long the way they fight, the way they compete and the way we play defense day to day,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “There was no worry.”
And even if there was worry or panic or despair after blowing a 10-0 fourth-quarter lead, the Vikings — and certainly not their top two picks in May’s NFL draft — didn’t let it show as they rebounded to tie the game at the end of the regulation and then won it early in overtime.
Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did the rallying and outside linebacker Anthony Barr did the redeeming, stripping Seferian-Jenkins on the first play from scrimmage in overtime, scooping it off the grass and returning it 27 yards for the walk-off winner in a thrilling 19-13 victory.
Barr’s fellow defenders swarmed the early NFL defensive rookie of the year candidate in the end zone, and in a starkly different locker room than the one in Buffalo, the Vikings beamed about how this was the kind of win that could turn their season around.
“We fight here. We’re built strong and we want to win,” said defensive end Everson Griffen, who recorded his eighth sack of the season. “I feel like we’re just going to keep on playing like we’ve been playing and get hot and go on a winning streak.”
But a half-hour later, defensive end Brian Robison, one of the last Vikings to get dressed and head to the team bus, slowly and stoically pulled up his socks. He knew the dirty truth, the one that got swept up by Barr on his way down the sideline.
“It feels great to get the win, especially being able to do it on defense,” said Robison in tone that belied that sentiment. “But we never should have been in that situation. We’ve got to do what we have to do to make sure this isn’t a recurring thing.”
Through three quarters, the Vikings had surrendered just 97 yards of total offense, only 38 coming through the air, and had seemingly seized control of the game with a 10-0 lead.
Then the Buccaneers got on the board with a field goal. They made it interesting with a second one. And with five minutes and 40 seconds left, they got the ball and a chance to take the lead.
Glennon methodically moved the Buccaneers down the field until the Vikings finally offered up some resistance inside the red zone. Like last week, the Vikings got into a fourth-down situation, but Buccaneers running back Mike James needed only one yard to keep the drive and hope alive. A play later, Glennon connected with Seferian-Jenkins, whom Barr lost track of in the end zone.
“We knew we had plenty of time,” safety Harrison Smith said. “We knew Teddy was going to get the ball down the field. [Kicker] Blair [Walsh] is as clutch as you can be. That’s obviously not what we wanted to do on that drive, but at no point were we down about it.”
Teddy did and Blair was. And in overtime, Barr picked a great time to score his first NFL touchdown.
To paraphrase the sagacious Harry Dunne from “Dumb and Dumber,” just when it looked like the Vikings had coughed up another one, Barr and the defense did something like that and totally redeemed themselves.
“It’s funny how one play changes that,” outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We gave up the drive there at the end and we would have been coming right back in here and having the same talk.”
Yes, thanks to Barr’s play, the latest blown lead became a concern for another day.
The win, which improved the Vikings’ record to 3-5 at midseason, prevented their playoff hopes from fading further and kindled hope that Zimmer’s revamped Vikings are capable of going on a second-half run.
“It was a little redemption for us, but at the same time we have to keep building off this,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “I feel like we have the monkey off our back now and it’s time to move on to Washington. And after that it’s a bye week, so we’ll win this next game and put ourselves in the position we need to be.”
But if the otherwise-strong defense keeps performing late-game disappearing acts and putting the team in situations like the one it was in both in Buffalo and Tampa Bay, chances are the Vikings won’t get very far.