KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The thing that had been perhaps the most reassuring, over the course of the four-game win streak the Vikings fashioned over the past month, was the solidity of it all: A team that had struggled through defensive growing pains early and an offensive identity crisis late in 2018 seemed to have a better sense this time around of the things it could count on.
On offense, the Vikings would exert their will first on the ground, creating big plays on zone runs and setting up an environment in which Kirk Cousins could hit downfield strikes off play-action. The haymakers they threw on offense would rarely be matched, thanks to a defense that had allowed only one run of more than 20 yards and only 23 such plays in the air.
Those tenets likely have not left the 2019 Vikings, not because of a 26-23 loss to the Chiefs on Sunday. They will have their chance on national TV next week to make a statement about the soundness of their foundation in a Sunday night game in Dallas. But as October’s wins over teams with middling records gave way to a daunting second-half road schedule, the Vikings lost at Arrowhead Stadium in part because they slipped their moorings.
Even without quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs stung the Vikings for four plays of 30 yards or more, including a 91-yard Damien Williams touchdown run and three strikes to Tyreek Hill against Trae Waynes that went for 111 yards and a score. Backup quarterback Matt Moore hit Hill for 41 yards in the fourth quarter, on a play coach Mike Zimmer said he thought Waynes should have stopped, to set up the game-tying field goal.
Moore came back with a 17-yard strike on second-and-21 to tight end Travis Kelce on the Chiefs’ final drive alive, then found Hill for 13 yards on a quick throw against a seven-man blitz to set up Harrison Butker’s 44-yard, game-winning kick as time expired. The only time the Vikings saw Mahomes all day was when he sprinted onto the field in street clothes to congratulate Butker on a kick that found its way through the uprights even though defensive end Danielle Hunter slightly tipped it.
“Entire team win,” said Moore, who went 25-for-35. “We needed to win at home, and we found a way to pull it out. Amazing.”
Cousins hit only 19 of his 38 passes, misfiring on three throws to start the game and launching a downfield throw that went off Stefon Diggs’ fingertips in the first quarter. Diggs caught only one pass and the Vikings, playing without injured Adam Thielen for most of the day and unable to establish their running game, went three-and-out twice after taking the lead on Cousins’ 3-yard touchdown throw to tight end Kyle Rudolph with 10:59 left.
“I mean, it’s a great opportunity,” said Cousins, who threw three touchdown passes. “I don’t know if you feel like the game is yours [at that point], but you have a great opportunity to make it yours and go do something. So that was one of the disappointments, to not do more on those final two drives.”
Williams’ touchdown, perhaps the most shocking moment of the day two plays after punter Britton Colquitt had pinned the Chiefs at their own 3, pulled Kansas City out of a six-point hole in the third quarter after Williams took advantage of a gaping cutback lane. He eluded tackle attempts from Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, racing to the end zone alongside Hill, who clocked a top speed of 22.6 mph (according to NFL Next Gen Stats) while escorting Williams to the goal line.
“We misfit it a little bit,” Zimmer said. “We had a pressure coming off the outside; we got out of line and missed tackles.”
Smith’s explanation was even more blunt and less printable in its original form as he said the team messed up. “That’s about it.”
The loss cost the Vikings nothing in the NFC North race, after the Packers fell to 7-2 with a loss to the Chargers late Sunday afternoon and the Lions and Bears both lost. It reduced the Vikings’ lead for the NFC’s final wild-card spot to a half-game over the victorious Panthers and idle Rams, however.
Five weeks after an irritable postgame locker room scene following their loss to the Bears, the Vikings were mostly subdued as they dressed at Arrowhead Stadium, lamenting opportunities lost to the Chiefs’ big plays (or, in the case of Dan Bailey’s second missed extra-point kick of the year, to Arrowhead’s stiff winds).
They will likely hear the return of familiar narratives about their fitness for big games, especially on the road, ahead of their trip to Dallas. Their chances to claim one of the NFC’s hotly contested playoff spots, though, will hinge on their ability to win such games; the Cowboys game precedes nighttime West Coast games against the Seahawks and Chargers in December.
At times, a win over a playoff-caliber opponent on the road seemed within the Vikings’ grasp. That it slipped away, in somewhat familiar fashion, might have been the most galling thing of all.
“I really treat it as 16 separate entities,” Cousins said. “If you put four together, it doesn’t really mean anything. You never know what the next game is going to bring, and this is a great example. You never know what narrative you’re going to put together. The challenges you’ll face are all different. What worked one week might not work another week, so you just have to reinvent yourself. There was some of that today.”