SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Adam Thielen’s stitched-up left ankle was fine. His route running on the backbreaking play in Saturday’s 27-10 divisional loss to the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium couldn’t have been any worse.
With 9 minutes, 56 seconds left in the third quarter, the Vikings had just four first downs and 84 yards.
And yet they somehow still trailed by only one score, 17-10.
It was third-and-9 from the Vikings’ 34. Kirk Cousins threw the ball, trusting that Thielen’s inside cut would cross the face of 31-year-old and still-all-world cornerback Richard Sherman.
“That’s something you work on Day 1,” Thielen said. “You never stop your route. You always cross the face [of the defender] to make the quarterback right.”
Two problems: 1, Thielen inexplicably stopped his route. 2, He didn’t make the quarterback right.
But he did make Sherman’s day with one of the easiest of Sherman’s 38 career interceptions, three of which have now come in the postseason.
“I like that!” Sherman shouted into the cameras after picking off the guy who’s made his signature yelp, “You like that?!”
After the game, Sherman added: “We were in man. [Thielen] gave me an inside release. I knew what the route was. I beat him to the spot. Kirk threw a very catchable ball. Appreciate it.”
The Vikings wouldn’t admit it, but that play sucked the life out of a tired team playing on the West Coast on a short week after a physical overtime win at New Orleans. The 49ers turned that takeaway into a soul-crushing 44-yard touchdown drive made up of eight runs and nary a thought of throwing the ball.
“We were fighting to hang in there,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “But that [interception] didn’t help. And then we dropped a punt [leading to a field goal]. When you do those things, it doesn’t matter. You get beat.”
The most pressing question after Saturday’s game wasn’t the health of Thielen’s ankle, which was cleated in Wednesday’s practice and landed the receiver on the injury report as questionable.
“Good enough to do my job,” Thielen said of the ankle. “But didn’t do it at a high enough level.”
Any limitations with the ankle?
“No,” he said. “Not at all.”
With that out of the way, the most pressing question was asked: What in the heck were you thinking when you stopped your route?
“I have no idea,” Thielen said. “I kind of screwed up the timing on it. Richard just made a good play and it’s on me.
“That play, that pick, that’s a game-changing play. You can’t have that in the playoffs. … Kirk has a lot of trust in me to make that play and it’s frustrating obviously, but I’m going to learn from it and move forward.”
It was such a poor play that not even Cousins could find a way to step in and accept the blame for his buddy.
Asked what he was seeing as that play unfolded, Cousins said, “Just trying to get Adam there on the inside as he breaks across the corner’s face.”
Which, of course, Thielen failed to do.
And, in doing so, the Vikings’ offense essentially became spectators during the third quarter. They possessed the ball for only 2 minutes, 21 seconds in that quarter and for only 21:33 for the game.
“They had the flow of the game for the majority of the game,” defensive end Everson Griffen said.
You can say that again.
The Vikings had 11 possessions. Six were three-and-outs followed by punts. Net gains on those six “drives”: 2, minus-2, 4, 6, minus-5 and minus-4.
The Sherman interception ended that drive after three plays and 1 yard.
Add it all up and it’s no wonder the Vikings’ 147 yards were the fewest by a 49ers playoff opponent during the Super Bowl era. And that’s saying something for a franchise that’s got five Lombardi trophies.
“They just punched us in the mouth,” Thielen said. “Over and over and over.”
True. But one of the key blows was self-inflicted, game-changing and ultimately season-ending.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org