The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It's sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it's a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
The Vikings had those pesky Lions right where they wanted them.
Big game. Late lead. Mike Zimmer's defense on the field. Sound familiar?
The Vikings were leading the Lions, 13-10, yesterday in a game that likely determined whether they would repeat as NFC North champions. After the offense managed to chew a few minutes off the clock, punter Jeff Locke boomed a 57-yard punt to pin the Lions inside of their 2-yard line.
Two months ago, when the mighty Vikings were sacking quarterbacks and plundering ball-carriers of the football, an offense in that situation would be lucky to get three plays and a punt off without a critical mistake. But while they still rank in the top three in the NFL in scoring defense and points allowed, this is far from the dominant bunch we saw in September.
Matthew Stafford, aka Captain Comeback, completed a 7-yard pass to Golden Tate to give the Lions a little bit of breathing room. And a run by Theo Riddick earned a first down. But the Vikings got the Lions into third-and-8 from their 18-yard line with about three minutes left. At that point, ESPN's win probability model gave them a 79.3 percent chance to win.
Zimmer sent seven defenders after Stafford. But the Lions line gave Stafford enough time to wait for ageless slot receiver Anquan Boldin to fool Captain Munnerlyn, who faked inside then beat the nickelback to the outside.
Boldin's 29-yard catch and run moved the Lions to their 47-yard line. Four plays later, middle linebacker Eric Kendricks emphatically made a great open-field tackle on Riddick to end their advances. But enough damage had been done. Lions kicker Matt Prater came out to tie the game at 13-all.
"Not slamming the door on them right there after such a great punt by Jeff was especially disappointing," outside linebacker Chad Greenway told my colleague Mark Craig. "Them driving just killed our football team today."
Moments later, quarterback Sam Bradford got baited into a back-breaking interception and Prater kicked a buzzer-beater to stun the Vikings again.
I'm guessing much of the day-after finger-pointing will be directed toward Bradford for giving away the football in Vikings territory. As I type this in my hotel room in Detroit, former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski is on TV saying that Bradford had to recognize that the Lions ran a trap coverage.
I'm not here to absolve Bradford, who has been so solid this season despite a leaky offensive line and one of the worst rushing attacks in league history, of blame. He made his biggest blunder in the season's biggest moment yet.
But let's not let the defense off the hook for coming up small once again.
With all of their injuries up front and a midseason coordinator change, the offense has plenty of excuses for being one of the league's least efficient.
But the defense? This group isn't stomping out fires like it did last season.
This young, talented, athletic group was bad against the Bears. It allowed the Lions to pull off an even more improbable comeback three weeks ago. It couldn't get off the field against the Redskins. And if not for that pick-six by Xavier Rhodes last weekend, it may have gotten ugly against the Cardinals.
Greenway said it best when asked about the offense after the game: "The defense has enough things we need to do better to be pointing fingers."
They allowed a 41-yard pass play to Tate. They twice let Stafford run for a first down on 3rd and long, though there might have been a reason for that. They had no answers for Boldin in big spots. And in the end the Vikings let Stafford lead his seventh fourth-quarter comeback of the season.
"They just executed and we didn't," Munnerlyn said after the 16-13 loss.
The Vikings have now lost five of their past six games to plummet out of playoff position. They are no doubt in trouble with five games left to play, but it's still too early to wave a white flag and start Googling mock drafts.
If the Vikings are going to finish strong and avoid the squandering of their 5-0 start, their defense, which has been nowhere near as good as the stats indicate, absolutely needs to play like the top unit they are billed to be.
If they don't, it will be a long December for the Vikings and their fans.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. With Kendricks still dealing with a hip injury, he was used sparingly in the first half, with Audie Cole manning the middle in the base defense and Greenway getting most of the nickel snaps. But we saw more of Kendricks in the second half, and he ended up playing 32 of 61 defensive snaps. Greenway played 29 and Cole got 10. Barr, meanwhile, played every snap.
2. The Vikings lost two starting offensive linemen in the loss. Center Joe Berger played 17 snaps before suffering a concussion. He was replaced by Nick Easton, who played 43 snaps. Then, in the fourth quarter, right tackle Jeremiah Sirles, who played 51 snaps, suffered a hip injury and was replaced by rookie Willie Beavers, who played the final eight snaps.
3. With Stefon Diggs out with a knee injury, rookie wide receiver Laquon Treadwell played a career-high 34 snaps, though officially he was not targeted once on Bradford’s 37 pass attempts. Adam Thielen led the wide receivers with 56 snaps and Cordarrelle Patterson played 34. Charles Johnson played 22 snaps and slot specialist Jarius Wright only got five.
4. With veteran cornerback Terence Newman also scratched, with a neck injury, Trae Waynes got another start and played every defensive snap. Rhodes played 60 of the 61 defensive snaps and Munnerlyn, despite an ankle injury, played 51. Rookie Mackensie Alexander played one snap.
5. Each of the top three defensive ends played at least 64 percent of the snaps. Everson Griffen played 55 snaps. Brian Robison played 50. And Danielle Hunter played 39. Hunter was the only one involved in a sack.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. "We've probably got to try and find a way to create some explosive plays. It's hard when you're only picking up five, six seven [yards] at a time. … I think that's an area that we've got to be better." — Bradford
2. "I wasn't surprised. I knew he was going to throw. They didn't want to go to overtime. They knew what happened the last time we went to overtime." — Lions cornerback Darius Slay on the Vikings opting to attack late
3. "At some point, we've got to catch a break. I mean, you just look at the attrition that we've had just on offense. … We can't make excuses. Injuries are a part of this game. It's just unfortunate." — tight end Kyle Rudolph
4. "Thankfully for us, everything is still in front of us. We're going to need some help now, but everything is still in front of us. If we win, good things will happen. We know we're in every ballgame. We're competing our tails off, we really are in this locker room. … Hey, we're a good football team. We've just got to figure out how to win these games." — Greenway
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Yes, Bradford botched the end of the game, but he otherwise was again a bright spot. Three months ago, Bradford was not even on the roster. Now he is being asked to carry a Vikings offense that has had 10 linemen play meaningful snaps and no running backs averaging more than 3.2 yards per carry. There was a lot of grumbling on social media about all the short throws after Bradford averaged a depth of target of 3.5 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. But given their injuries and their personnel at wide receiver, these quick strikes are probably their best approach. They put a lot of pressure on Bradford to quickly read defenses and get the ball out of his hands before he gets buried by the pass rush. And on his most important dropback of the season, Bradford made the wrong decision. Let's not bury the guy, though. He has been performing admirably this season.
2. Blunders like that illegal formation penalty were what kept Patterson off the field. Patterson has been a feel-good story this season, working his way off the bench and back into the mix on offense after a pair of lost seasons in 2014 and 2015. But with the game on the line yesterday, he reminded us all why he had fallen out of favor in the first place. On 3rd and 2 on the final drive, Patterson was in at split end, which meant he needed to put a toe on the line of scrimmage. He did not, seemingly ignoring an official who told him he wasn't lined up properly. The penalty wiped out a first-down catch by running back Jerick McKinnon and put the Vikings in 3rd and long. We all know how that turned out. Patterson has cut down on these mental miscues this season after too often running the wrong routes or lining up in the wrong spot in the past. He picked a bad time to revert to his old form.
3. The Vikings were right for sticking with punter Jeff Locke, who has been excellent. After Locke's net punting average dipped in each of the past two seasons, many argued, and I was one of them, that the Vikings should bring in competition for the underperforming former fifth-round pick. The team believed that Locke was bound to have a breakout season if he could just kick with a little more consistency, and they thought the move back indoors would help Locke do it. Turns out they knew what they were doing. Locke is on pace to set career highs in punting average (44.5) and the more important net average (41.1). And his 28 punts inside the 20 are already his best mark. He has delivered in big spots, too, booming that late 72-yarder against the Cardinals and pinning the Lions deep with five minutes left yesterday. Locke absolutely should be in the Pro Bowl conversation.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Are there an updates on Berger and Sirles, and how do you think the two young guys, Easton and Beavers, played in their place yesterday?
2. Do you agree with Greenway's post-game assertion that the Lions "held the absolute crap out of us" throughout the loss without penalty?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. Winning the NFC North seemed to be the clearest path to the playoffs for the Vikings. But the loss knocked them a game and a half behind the Lions with five games left to play. So the Vikings will have to keep an eye on the wild-card standings going forward. Right now, they trail the Giants, whom they beat, and the Redskins, who beat them, in the wild-card race. The Eagles, who also beat the Vikings, and the Buccaneers can pull even with them at 6-5 with wins this weekend. Given how crowded the field is, the Vikings probably have to go at least 3-2 down the stretch to get in.