GREEN BAY, Wis. – As the Vikings neared the south end zone at Lambeau Field on Sunday, on the verge of completing a 21-point comeback in the road venue that means the most to their fans, they did so with a drive that doubled as an unapologetic statement about what kind of offense they want to run.
They hadn't given up on the run in the 21-16 defeat when they fell behind by three touchdowns to the Packers, finding their first answer in the form of a 75-yard scoring run from Dalvin Cook and maintaining nearly an even split between run and pass as they pulled within five points. After taking over at their own 40 with 10:08 left, they called three straight runs, before Kirk Cousins picked up six yards on a 2nd-and-9 scramble and found Kyle Rudolph for five yards to convert a third down. Three more runs — the last of them a 14-yarder from Alexander Mattison — gave the Vikings first-and-goal from the Packers' 8 with just over five minutes left.
Packers pass rusher Za'Darius Smith had limped off the field during the drive, and it seemed Green Bay's defense was on its heels, ripe for a play-action throw that Cousins could hit for a go-ahead score.
"We thought we had them tired," coach Mike Zimmer said. "They were having trouble getting lined up and we thought we'd catch them."
But as a backpedaling Cousins lofted a throw into the end zone that Kevin King took away from Stefon Diggs, the Vikings' chance at victory withered away.
"Just a gut-wrenching loss," Cousins said. "I'm proud of the way my teammates fought, kept fighting, but I'm very disappointed in my performance today. It just wasn't good enough."
While both Cousins and the Vikings have made it clear they're better when he doesn't have to carry them, the interception stood as the most odious moment of a day where their comeback happened almost in spite of him. He finished with the third-worst passer rating (52.9) of his career as a starter, completing just 14 of his 32 passes for 230 yards and turning the ball over three times: on a fumble and two interceptions on throws to Diggs.
The last time the Vikings — who posted 404 yards Sunday and gained 198 of them on the ground — ran for this many yards and lost was on Dec. 2, 2012, in what might have been the most spellbinding day of Adrian Peterson's MVP season. The running back gained 210 yards on 21 carries that day at Lambeau Field, breaking away for an 82-yard touchdown to give the Vikings the lead before halftime, but a victory — which ultimately would have given the Vikings the NFC North title that year — slipped away because of two Christian Ponder interceptions in the end zone.
It remains to be seen whether Cousins' back-footed throw into the end zone will prove as costly to the 2019 Vikings' division title chances as Ponder's 2012 picks at Lambeau Field. But a year after he directed a furious comeback for a Week 2 tie against the Packers, Cousins' turnovers short-circuited the Vikings' rally on Sunday.
"Today he made a couple mistakes, but he made some great throws as well — the throw to Diggs [for a 45-yard touchdown]," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's got all the talent, and we just need to continue to coach him the way we want to play."
At times on Sunday, the Vikings effectively captured the way they want to play, recovering two fumbles and stopping the Packers on their final 11 drives of the game, including a bizarre sequence where they stuffed Green Bay on a fourth-down run after Aaron Rodgers believed the Packers had picked up a first down on the previous play. Cook ran for 154 yards, and gained another 37 on three receptions, including a 13-yard screen that took the Vikings from 2nd-and-20 to 3rd-and-7.
But Cousins overshot Diggs on a downfield throw that might have set up a touchdown on the next play, and overthrew Rudolph from a clean pocket in the red zone. The Vikings committed three offensive pass interference penalties among their eight total penalties in the game, including a Cook downfield block that was found to be a penalty when the league office reviewed a touchdown pass to Diggs.
The wide receiver threw his helmet after his 45-yard score; after his 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (which Zimmer called "just selfish"), the Packers blocked Dan Bailey's 48-yard extra point attempt. Bailey also pulled his first field goal of the day wide left from 47 yards out.
And after the Vikings installed a series of coverage adjustments late last week, Rodgers carved them up early. He opened the game with a 39-yard strike to Davante Adams after the receiver ran a different route than Xavier Rhodes said the Vikings expected. Rodgers went 10-for-11 on the Packers' first three drives, throwing for 141 yards as the Vikings shuttled between Jayron Kearse and Nate Meadors at nickel corner.
"They caught us on a couple things and we were a little banged up in the secondary," Zimmer said. "We had to make some adjustments."
They did nearly enough to come all the way back. The fact they couldn't, in the end, sat heavy on the shoulders of the quarterback they expect to come through in big moments.
"I didn't feel like I did my part today and I didn't feel like I gave our team the chance it needed from my role," Cousins said. "I'll stand up here and take ownership of that. I had a lot of plays that did not get made."