The Vikings had reclaimed control of their own playoff fate after Monday's victory at Chicago. They were back home for a Sunday afternoon game against a Rams team that'd had an even shorter week than they did. They were a victory away from heading to Lambeau Field with a firm grip on the NFC's final playoff spot.
And yet before kickoff Sunday, their energy level was low enough to concern their head coach, their biggest offensive star and the man who runs their defensive huddle.
Justin Jefferson said he felt it as soon as he entered the home locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium, where he started trying to get teammates going. Mike Zimmer took the rare step of entering the Vikings' pregame huddle — with Dalvin Cook and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, two of the figures ordinarily in the middle of the scrum, at home with COVID-19 — and telling players they would need to bring their own energy.
"It felt like it was a little dead inside here today," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "It's usually got a nice buzz, and for some reason, it wasn't like that. I'm not saying that's why we lost. I'm just saying that I think that's why he came in there and was letting us know we had to find our own energy today."
The Vikings, on Sunday, had so much to gain. Matthew Stafford, the losing quarterback in his past six starts against the Vikings, had so much to give them. But instead of leaving with a galvanizing victory, they departed with a 30-23 defeat, their eighth of the season and only the latest to bring about questions that, for the 2021 Vikings, will not go away.
Despite Stafford throwing three interceptions and offering the Vikings chances for several more, the Rams never trailed and led by 14 early in the fourth quarter. The only time the Vikings pulled within a field goal, Brandon Powell raced untouched down the right sideline, with time to direct Michael Hoecht on a block of Kene Nwangwu before flipping into the end zone on a 61-yard punt return touchdown.
For the fifth time this season, the Vikings lost a game while winning the turnover battle. They are the 23rd team in the Super Bowl era to lose that many games where they had a positive turnover margin.
"For sure, we definitely let [the defense] down," Jefferson said. "I felt like they played a tremendous game, especially with those three turnovers. We've got to find a way to get in the end zone, score, put points on the board, and it'll be a different game if we do that."
The Vikings (7-8) again failed in their attempt to get over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2019 season, and lost control of their playoff fate as the Eagles closed out a victory over the Giants. The Vikings will need to win at Green Bay next Sunday night to keep any realistic chance of a playoff trip alive.
"Certainly frustrated," said quarterback Kirk Cousins, who finished 27 of 38 for 315 yards, a touchdown and an interception. "Another game — a one-possession game — didn't pull it out. In this league, it just tends to hurt you when you don't score touchdowns and you settle for field goals. I think we were 2-for-12 on third down. That's obviously not good enough and we need to find ways to stay on the field and score points throughout the game, not just in spurts."
The Vikings scored only 20 points in five trips to the red zone. Their only turnover — a Cousins pass that bounced off K.J. Osborn's hands at the goal line and was intercepted by Rams linebacker Travin Howard — cost them a chance to tie the score in the first quarter, and they were forced to settle for short Greg Joseph field goals twice.
It sparked questions about their approach near the goal line.
Jefferson, who was targeted just once in Cousins' eight red-zone attempts, said afterward he thought the Vikings should have been more aggressive in the red zone, before adding, "I don't call the plays." Cousins pointed to things like a second-quarter sack he took on the play after Anthony Barr picked off Stafford, saying they took the Vikings out of the rhythm of their offense while in scoring position.
"I go back and say, 'How could I avoid the sack? How could I get the ball out quickly?' " Cousins said. "I think there were plenty of times to be aggressive and take our shots; we just didn't make it happen when they were called."
The NFC West-leading Rams (11-4) built their leads more on the strength of their run game than the effectiveness of Stafford. Sony Michel finished with 131 yards on 27 carries and the Rams ran for 159 overall, in a game that might not have been as close if Stafford, the former Lions quarterback, hadn't been so erratic.
Los Angeles' first touchdown drive happened only after Cameron Dantzler dropped a chance at an interception when Stafford waited too long to throw a post route to Odell Beckham Jr.
The quarterback's first interception was on a late throw, back across his body, after he had evaded a sack. With the Rams up 10 in the third quarter, Stafford threw two more interceptions: one when he undershot Beckham on a deep ball, the other when Dalvin Tomlinson tipped a pass that Barr picked off.
"We played tight coverage and got some hands on some tipped balls, which always helps," Barr said. "Their offense likes to kind of take shots, so we had that covered up on the backside. But it doesn't mean too much with the L."
Trailing 13-10, Minnesota was in position to drive for the lead after Stafford badly underthrew Beckham on a third-down corner route. But a Brian O'Neill false start — the first penalty accepted against the Vikings — put the Vikings in a third-and-11, and after Cousins' third-down scramble came up short of a first down, disaster struck in the form of Powell's punt return TD.
The Rams were up 20-13 and drove to midfield at the end of the third quarter when Stafford hit Cooper Kupp along the Vikings sideline. Cameron Dantzler stripped the ball from Kupp as they were heading out of bounds, but officials ruled Dantzler had already stopped Kupp's forward progress, ending the play before the fumble that Eric Kendricks recovered.
Forward progress, by rule, is not reviewable, so Zimmer's challenge flag was met only with a denial by referee John Hussey as boos rained down from the crowd. The Rams finished their drive with Stafford hitting Beckham in the back corner of the end zone after the receiver's release beat Dantzler, building a two-score lead.
"I told them, 'You know, they let these guys get in these piles and they run forever. They never blow the whistle, and all of a sudden we have a one-on-one thing there, and they're going to say it's blown dead,' " Zimmer said. "They did tell me the replay said the ball came out and touched the player that was out of bounds. I don't know if he was or not."
On Sunday night, the Vikings will head to Lambeau Field with their season, and perhaps jobs, on the line. They will need to win in single-digit temperatures against the NFC's top seed on national TV.
How do they put it all back together?
"Don't come out with lack of energy, just knowing what's at stake," Jefferson said. "It's not totally over yet. We've got some juice left, but we've just got to go win these two games, be aggressive, be emotionally into it and just be mentally prepared to go in there and fight our butt off."