The five three-and-outs, the interception, the lost fumble in the red zone, the 11 incompletions on first down, the 4.5-yard average per pass attempt after the opening drive … none of it would have mattered had Christian Ponder simply completed a short pass to an open Greg Jennings on third-and-4 with less than 3½ minutes left and the Vikings leading by three points.
“I missed him,” Ponder said after the Vikings were upset 31-27 at home by the Cleveland Browns. “It was a bad throw. He was open and did a great job on that route and beat man coverage, beat their best corner [Joe Haden]. But we weren’t able to convert.”
And so the Vikings, for the sixth and final time, went three plays and punted, this time from their 20-yard line. And for the second time in two weeks, the defense collapsed on a shortened field at the end of a game in which the Vikings had four takeaways.
“That’s two weeks in a row we’ve had a chance to close it out,” center John Sullivan said. “And that’s two weeks we haven’t come through.”
The week before in Chicago, Ponder had a short pass sail just out of tight end Kyle Rudolph’s reach in the end zone on second-and-goal late in the game. Rudolph was well covered on that play, so Ponder had to be more precise to avoid disaster. Jennings, however, was open and heading past the first-down marker.
“If you want to be a good team, you’ve got to take advantage of that situation, and we didn’t,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “We punt from backed up, they get good field position and go down and score.”
And the Vikings lose again. And Ponder is left talking about a lack of execution and the need to fix it.
“We have to fix it,” Ponder said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be 0-16.”
The offensive line had its second rough outing in three weeks as Ponder was sacked six times and hurried twice. Ponder lost a fumble that kept the Vikings from kicking a 28-yard field goal at the end of the first half. He also tried to force a deep ball through three defenders to Jerome Simpson. One defender tipped the ball and another one intercepted it.
Adrian Peterson also had a quiet day with 88 yards on 25 carries with a long of 9 yards. Ponder actually hurt the Browns more running the ball than Peterson. He was at his decisive best during five carries that netted 46 yards two TDs.
Browns linebacker Craig Robertson seemed to shrug when asked why Ponder hurt them on the ground more than the reigning league MVP did.
“Our goals today were to stop Adrian Peterson,” said Robertson, “and force Christian Ponder to throw the ball.”
Mission accomplished. After completing three of four passes for 52 yards — including completions of 27 and 22 yards — on the opening drive, Ponder completed just 22 of 38 passes for 176 yards with no completion longer than 15.
Frazier, however, said he’s still committed to Ponder, saying “He’s our quarterback.” Ponder said he has “no doubt” that’s true. When Frazier was asked if that could change after studying game film, he said, “You evaluate and make the decisions you have to make, but as we speak, I don’t see that happening.”
Some fans are more than ready. After a short completion to Peterson far short of the first-down marker led to another three-and-out in the third quarter, fans started chanting “Let’s Go, Cassel!”
“I think it’s impossible to not hear them,” Ponder said. “But we want to win just as bad as the fans and as bad as anyone else. We’re more disappointed than they are.”
Again, nothing else would have mattered had a simple short pass to Jennings been completed and the Vikings had held possession.
“We’ll have to see [what happened] on film,” Ponder said. “I don’t know. I kind of changed my throwing angle a little bit and I just missed him. That’s typically a ball I can complete 99 out of 100 times. Unfortunately, that was the one miss.”
Unfortunately for the Vikings, that’s becoming an all-too-familiar answer.