There are six chapters left to be written in the story — as quarterback Kirk Cousins has taken to calling it — of the 2020 Vikings.
They will be penned with one of two plot lines: a stirring finish in which a disjointed team comes together to make the most of its chances, or a nondescript conclusion where some collection of wins is not enough to help these Vikings overcome all the opportunities they have squandered.
In the second scenario, it will be losses like the 31-28 defeat the Vikings were handed by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday that ultimately tell the story.
Presented with an opportunity to win a fourth consecutive game, return to .500 and close within one game of the NFC’s final playoff spot, the Vikings instead lost because of the defensive stop they could not get.
It came in the same west end zone where Stephen Gostkowski’s 55-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter made the Titans the first team to come back on the Vikings two months ago.
“Just a heartbreaking loss today,” said Cousins, who threw three touchdown passes in the final 25 minutes. “It was hard-fought, it was a back-and-forth game. It was one of those games, and so many NFL games are like this, where one or two plays makes a difference. You know that going into the game, you feel that during the game, but we just didn’t come out on the right side of enough of those plays to win the game, obviously.
“There’s still a lot of football to be played. We have to bounce back quickly and get back on track. There are positives to point to, but ultimately when you don’t win, you leave the stadium feeling sick to your stomach.”
A game that had six lead changes, 29 fourth-quarter points, a series of exquisite catches from both teams’ receivers and another resilient performance from Vikings running back Dalvin Cook ultimately went to the Cowboys. Rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb returned a punt 20 yards to the Dallas 39 and backup QB Andy Dalton engineered a 61-yard drive that ended with a third-down scoring pass with 1:37 left to tight end Dalton Schultz on crossing routes designed to sow confusion in the Vikings’ secondary.
Dalton, in his first game back from the COVID-19 reserve list, hit 10 of 13 passes in the second half, directing the game-winning scoring drive after Cousins hit Justin Jefferson for a 39-yard score and a 28-24 lead with 9:37 left.
“In the locker room before the game and in pregame, I said, ‘They’re ready to go today,’ ” coach Mike Zimmer said of his team. “We came out and got a three-and-out on defense, fumbled the punt right after that. So I think we started out slow offensively today. Played a lot better in the second half. And then defensively, we didn’t play as well in the second half. I don’t think we got pressure on Dalton. And we weren’t as good against the run either.”
The Cowboys ran for 180 yards and got their first fourth-quarter touchdown on the longest running play of the year against the Vikings.
Tony Pollard — used as a changeup to Ezekiel Elliott on his 103-yard day — bounced a run off the right side of the Dallas line, beyond Jalyn Holmes and a desultory tackle attempt from cornerback Chris Jones. His 42-yard score, following three Elliott runs that gained 24 yards, was the Cowboys’ longest play of the day and gave Dallas a 24-21 lead with 12:02 to play.
The Vikings’ Monday review of the loss will also undoubtedly linger on a series of bizarre penalties, from the illegal-shift call against cornerback Kris Boyd that wiped out a big play on a fake punt pass from Britton Colquitt to the block-in-the-back penalty Boyd took as a member of the kicking team on the next play.
Wide receiver Bisi Johnson was called for a facemask penalty on a stiff-arm that wiped out a first down, and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson was called for a holding penalty. Dakota Dozier drew a 15-yard chop block penalty in the first quarter, and safety Harrison Smith had another 15-yard personal foul on a hit that left the five-time Pro Bowl player again wondering what he could have done differently.
“I think the hit on Harrison Smith was clean,” Zimmer said. “There were a lot of those things, but that’s not why we lost. But there were a lot of those things today, I thought.”
Had the Vikings won, plaudits would have gone to an offense that overcame first-half fumbles from Cousins and Cook during a second-half comeback that turned a 16-7 halftime deficit into a game Zimmer said he thought the Vikings would win.
Thielen finished with eight catches for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a one-handed grab with a toe stand in the back corner of the end zone that invoked Hall of Famer Cris Carter — whom Thielen grew up watching — and pulled the Vikings within two in the third quarter.
Thielen’s second touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter put the Vikings up 21-16, their first lead since the first quarter, and set up the back-and-forth to come.
Cook, who came into the day as one of two NFL running backs with two 30-touch games this season, handled the ball 32 times on Sunday, running for 115 yards on 27 carries and catching five passes for 45. He returned to the game after a brief sideline examination following the crushing hit he absorbed from safety Donovan Wilson on his fumble. Like Cousins and Thielen, he kept popping up from withering collisions, as the Vikings’ offensive line fought to steady itself against a Cowboys front that disrupted the Vikings offense early.
Cook, Thielen and Jefferson combined to touch the ball on 42 of the team’s 57 offensive plays in the game’s first 57 minutes. The Vikings’ final chance to tie the score ended with Jefferson’s costly second-down drop and two incomplete passes to Thielen, who lost a yellow cleat on the final play that officials initially mistook for a flag.
The Vikings could get to .500 with home victories against the Panthers and Jaguars in the next two weeks but will almost certainly need a road win against the Buccaneers or Saints in December to stay in the wild-card race.
A trip to the postseason will have to come through a thrilling December finish. The Vikings have left themselves no other choice.
“We know what’s up. We definitely know what’s up,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks, who finished with seven tackles and an interception. “We’ve got to do it perfect; we can’t be making little mistakes that are going to lead us to losing the game.”