Mike Zimmer had a feeling early Sunday that something was wrong with his team.
Re-energized by their victory in Jacksonville, his Vikings players had performed well in practice all week as they prepared for the Indianapolis Colts. And the return of running back Adrian Peterson contributed to the lift in their spirits.
But as they warmed up for a game they couldn’t afford to lose, the coach sensed that his players were lethargic, and he still has no idea why.
His premonition was confirmed at halftime, when he gazed upon his lifeless team in the locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium after they had sleepwalked through the first half and fallen behind by 27 points to the Colts. The Vikings did not wake up in the second half, ultimately losing 34-6.
“I don’t think it was a lack of effort,” Zimmer concluded Monday, after twice watching the tape of one of the most lopsided losses of his three-year tenure.
The Vikings defense allowed Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to complete 75 percent of his passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns, and Colts running back Frank Gore topped 100 rushing yards as the visitors hogged the ball.
A day later, Zimmer labeled it an “uncharacteristic” performance and said his defenders, who did not sack Luck once, were not “flying to the football like they normally do.” He wondered aloud if he was maybe “overcoaching” them.
As for his offense, Zimmer said the Vikings “started off slow,” which was an understatement considering they had as many turnovers (two) in the first half as first downs. The critical mistakes continued in the second half.
Even though the Vikings were flagged only six times for 27 yards, the infractions were costly, none more so than nose tackle Linval Joseph’s penalty for tumbling over the long snapper on a first-quarter field-goal attempt by the Colts. The penalty gave Indianapolis a first down and set up a touchdown that made it 10-0.
“We’re making these mistakes,” Zimmer said of the penalties piling up in recent weeks. “It’s kind of been rearing its ugly head for a long time, and I can’t get it fixed.”
The loss was a critical blow to their playoff hopes. But the Vikings, now 7-7 after starting 5-0, aren’t officially eliminated yet.
To make the playoffs, they must win their final two games. And they must avoid a three-way tie atop the division with Green Bay and Detroit, who play each other in Week 17. And Tampa Bay must lose its final two games. And Washington, which lost to Carolina on Monday night, must lose at least once more.
But, yes, we are telling you there’s a chance. It’s about 2 percent according to the projections from FiveThirtyEight.com, an ESPN-owned website.
“I haven’t looked at anything on that,” Zimmer said, referring to all the playoff scenarios. “My job is to go out and beat Green Bay, however we can do it.”
Ah, yes, Green Bay. The Packers, left for dead by the NFL’s talking heads a month ago, are very much alive. They have reeled off four consecutive wins to put themselves back in position to win the NFC North, which they can do with two more wins.
Zimmer noted that the Packers have changed up their offense, using more than just three-receiver sets and actually huddling up every once in a while. Wide-receiver-turned-tailback Ty Montgomery has given them a spark in the running game. And Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers.
“The last five weeks, I think they’ve had the most 20-yard completions in the league,” Zimmer said. “Because they’re running the ball better, they’re getting some shots down the field as well. And you know how good Rodgers is when he gets opportunities to throw it down the field.”
Unfortunately, Vikings fans know exactly what Zimmer is talking about.
Now, on a short week, the coach is staring down one of the toughest challenges of his tenure — picking up the pieces of Sunday’s embarrassing loss to the Colts and putting this team back together in time for Saturday’s game at Lambeau Field.
So, Coach, how exactly do you plan to do that?
“I’m still thinking about it. I’m trying to figure out the best way to approach this. They’re obviously disappointed. I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in the way that we performed,” Zimmer said. “We need to fix it. I need to do a better job. I need to get these guys on point.”