FOXBOROUGH, MASS. – At the end of each quarter of a season that began with stratospheric expectations, the 2018 Vikings have faced a test of sorts: a nationally televised game against an established team that was again in contention this season.
In each of those quarterly exams — against the Rams, Saints and now the Patriots — the Vikings have come up short. They’re running out of chances to assert themselves, and without a victory next Monday night in Seattle, they might not have many games left.
It’s come to that for these Vikings, beset by injuries on defense and unable to find a rhythm on offense in a 24-10 loss to the Patriots on Sunday afternoon. After a second-quarter touchdown, a stop at the beginning of the third quarter and a Dan Bailey field goal tied the score at 10, the Vikings saw Tom Brady complete six of his next seven passes — with the seventh resulting in a pass interference penalty on Holton Hill — on a pair of touchdown drives that put the game out of reach.
Brady completed 24 of his 32 passes for 311 yards, a touchdown and an interception, directing an offense that posted 471 yards and moved the ball with stunning ease after the Vikings had tied it up. The Vikings, on the other hand, were left with now-familiar laments about turnovers, penalties and coach Mike Zimmer’s call for more balance on offense, on a day when the Vikings gained 95 yards on the ground but had only 13 rushing attempts. Kirk Cousins threw a pair of interceptions to go with only 201 yards passing on 44 attempts.
“We’ve beaten ourselves in some critical situations, when it kind of matters the most and when it can change the course of the game, but it goes a different direction,” running back Latavius Murray said. “That’s really tough, and it’s really deflating.”
The loss, coupled with the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers, dropped the Vikings into the No. 7 spot in the NFC playoff chase for the time being at 6-5-1. They are a half-game behind the Redskins, who play the Eagles on Monday night.
The defeat also keeps the Vikings 1½ games behind the Bears in the NFC North, despite Chicago’s 30-27 OT loss to the Giants.
“I just feel like we didn’t start out very good,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “They came out and scored on us. And you know, we went three and out on offense [on the game’s opening drive], I believe. So, you know, the start of the game was more disappointing. Then we settled down and started playing OK, but [the Patriots] did a nice job.”
The Patriots converted seven of their 14 third-down attempts against the league’s best third-down defense, relying on quick passes that gave their receivers room to run after the catch. They gained at least 10 yards on five consecutive plays on their first drive, capping it off with the first of fullback James Develin’s two touchdown runs.
Cousins took a second-down sack on the Vikings’ following series and was hit by Kyle Van Noy on a third-down throw to Adam Thielen, before Dan Bailey missed a 48-yard field goal wide left. The Patriots had a 10-0 lead late in the first half, but a third-down stop gave the Vikings a chance to score before halftime, and Cousins directed an impressive two-minute drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Thielen.
The Vikings had to settle for three points in the third quarter, at the end of a drive on which they wanted pass interference flags for throws to the end zone to Thielen and Aldrick Robinson. Then Brady went to work, finding wide receiver Josh Gordon for 24 yards against Marcus Sherels, who was forced to play cornerback with Xavier Rhodes limited because of a hamstring injury and Trae Waynes out because of a concussion.
Brady hit Gordon three plays later for a 24-yard score when the receiver found a seam behind linebacker Eric Kendricks, splitting safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris for the touchdown. The Patriots started their next drive with a 20-yard pass interference penalty on rookie Holton Hill, and Develin scored on a 2-yard run six plays later to make it 24-10, before an end-zone interception that was the first of Cousins’ two picks in the game’s final 4:30.
Zimmer talked during the week about how the Patriots would try to make the Vikings “play lefthanded,” and they spent much of the night cracking down on Thielen and Stefon Diggs, with double teams or bracket coverage over the top of one of them. They shuffled between Cover 0 blitzes and occasions where they’d back out of the aggressive look, instead floating safeties over the top of the defense.
They also stoked the receivers’ tempers; Diggs declined to talk to reporters after the game, and Thielen said his emotions got away from him during a heated fourth-quarter exchange with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, after the receiver objected to Patriots linebacker Patrick Chung going down because of an apparent injury that gave New England more time to determine whether it should challenge the spot on Murray’s fourth-down run.
“I just thought the play was cheap,” Thielen said. “I let the emotions get the best of me. It’s a smart football play, and if you are in that situation, why not? It’s not cheating, because there’s no rule against it.”
The Vikings will be relying on outside help to reach the playoffs if they fall short Monday night against the Seahawks, who currently sit as the NFC’s No. 5 seed at 7-5.
In one sense, it’s a chance for a makeup exam after their most recent quarterly test. In another, it’s a game they can’t afford to lose.
“I feel fine about my team,” Zimmer said. “I think we continue to learn a lot about ourselves. I think we’ve got a good football team; we’ve just got to play better than we did [Sunday]. This one game won’t define us. We’ve got four games left. The season is still in front of us, whatever we want to do.”