Cleveland had both a 10-point lead and the momentum late in the second quarter Sunday when Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin tried to give it back. What resulted was a succession of mistakes that may have stymied a potential Vikings TD drive.
At least that’s what the Vikings, who fell to the Browns 31-27, were saying after yet another last-second loss.
The situation: Forced into a three-and-out after the Browns had taken that 24-14 lead, Vikings punter Jeff Locke sent a high, 55-yarder toward Benjamin, who muffed it.
Larry Dean recovered the ball and attempted to advance for a score. The officials, ruling properly that a muffed punt can’t be advanced, marked the ball at the Browns 26-yard line.
And then, the mistakes:
First, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier threw the red flag to challenge, which he cannot do in that situation. NFL rules say changes of possession can only be reviewed from the booth.
And the second mistake: Referee Bill Leavy penalized Frazier 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, incorrectly. A rule change during the offseason dictated that the Vikings should have been charged a timeout rather than penalized. The new rule, often called the Jim Schwartz rule, is named after the Lions coach who made a similar mistake in a Thanksgiving game last fall.
First, Frazier: “It turned out to be a muff, which you can’t review,” he said. “It should have been a timeout. They walked off 15 [yards]. I’m not sure why.”
Then Leavy: “A timeout should have been charged instead of a 15-yard penalty,” he admitted.
But the bottom line is, how big was that call?
Instead of having a first-and-10 at the Browns 26 with 2:28 left in the half, the Vikings were handed a first-and-25 at the Cleveland 41.
“It’s huge,” said Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, whose units had a rather up-and-down day. “That sets us up for a touchdown, not a field goal. It’s amazing to me the mistakes that are made. But this is the NFL. We’ve got to live with them.”
On first down Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder threw to receiver Jerome Simpson for 5 yards. On second-and-20 Ponder hit Simpson again, for 9 yards. On third-and-11 Ponder threw to running back Adrian Peterson for 2 yards to the 25. Blair Walsh came on and kicked a 43-yard field goal to pull the Vikings within 24-17.
Was it a game-changing decision? It’s impossible to say whether Ponder and the Vikings offense would have scored a touchdown if given the ball at the 26. Moments after Walsh’s field goal Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer was intercepted by Harrison Smith, giving the Vikings the ball at the Cleveland 46 with 47 seconds left in the half. The Vikings drove to the Browns 11-yard line, where Ponder was sacked and fumbled, losing the ball.
But on a day when the Vikings committed many mistakes, that muffed punt call could have made a difference.
“I can’t throw the flag in that situation,” Frazier said.