Let's ignore for just a minute or two the myriad problems that plagued the Vikings in their second straight second-half collapse. For the sake of argument, let's assume the Bucs and Vikes traded touchdowns and field goals throughout the game, but that the score was an identical 20-17 in favor of the Vikings when the Buccaneers took the ball at their own 39-yard line with 4:12 remaning in the game. Assume, further, that the same sequence of plays resulted in the Bucs facing 3rd-and-4 at the Vikings' 10-yard line with 1:17 remaining.
Okay, now the assumptions are over.
FACT: The Vikings had all three of their time outs remaining.
FACT: The absolute best-case scenario (avoiding the possibility of a forced turnover, which you can't rationally be counting on happening) for the Vikings is that they prevent the first down and force the Bucs to kick a field goal that would tie the game with roughly one minute left in the game.
FACT: The clock continues to run after each play is run, except in the case of an incomplete pass or an offensive player running out of bounds with the ball.
FACT: Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman completed a six-yard pass to set up 1st-and-goal at the four-yard line.
FACT:The worst-case, and very real, scenario at this point is that the Bucs run two or three more plays, with the Vikings opting not to use any of their time outs, then score a touchdown to take the lead with very little time left on the clock.
What happened, of course, was not exactly the worst-case, but close to it. LaGarrette Blount gashed the Vikings defense (on first down, instead of running some clock on second and/or third-down) for a four-yard touchdown run, leaving just over 30 seconds on the clock for the Vikings to attempt a far-fetched touchdown-scoring drive.
QUESTION: Why didn't the Vikings use a time out after the aforementioned third-down completion that gave the Bucs first-and-goal at the four? And continue to use them after each subsequent play? What were they saving them for? Is there any rational explanation for not stopping the clock with 1:17 remaining?
As mentioned, the best thing that could have happened in this situation is the Vikings holding the Bucs out of the end zone and forcing a game-tying field goal. Even if they were forced to burn all three of their time outs, they'd still get the ball with somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-55 seconds on the clock (I'm assuming an average NFL play takes six-to-seven seconds, although an incompletion can take half that) and a chance to drive for the game-winning field goal.
Worst case, they burn the three time outs but the Bucs waste some time off the clock and then convert for a touchdown on fourth-down, leaving the Vikes with a daunting task of having to drive for a touchdown, but at least giving them a snowball's chance with 50-plus seconds on the clock.
By the time Tampa was inside the 10-yard line, the outcome was painfully obvious; a game-tying field goal (at best) or a game-losing touchdown (at worst). In either case, it was imperative that the Vikings have as much time left on the clock as possible. Instead, the Vikings inexplicably and inexcusably decided to do... nothing.
Note: For the record, head coach Leslie Frasier was asked about this very situation (twice) in his post-game press conference. Each time, he said he thought the defense could stop the Bucs and force a field goal or get a turnover. A noble philosophy, but in this case, unfortunately, the wrong one.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com and is a contributor to Vikings.com, the 2011 Maple Street Press Vikings Annual, and the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3.