GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Vikings' defense had regrouped after withstanding a torrent of big plays from Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Kirk Cousins had completed six of his eight passes on a 58-yard drive to set up a 37-yard field goal attempt for the kicker who'd connected from 53 to send last week's game to overtime.
As Greg Joseph lined up to attempt a game-winner late Sunday afternoon, Mike Zimmer thought it would be the perfunctory final act of a well-earned road victory.
"I felt good about that kick," he said. "I know he missed the extra point earlier, but it's kind of like that. He's been kicking good, we're indoors, it's a perfect surface. I'm thinking, 'This should be an easy one here.' "
Joseph's kick drifted a foot or two outside the right upright at State Farm Stadium, sealing a 34-33 win for Arizona, and Zimmer quietly removed his headset, left only with the positive impressions he'd formed of his team through the second half of a wild game on Sunday.
If the Vikings' pass rush is as relentless as it was in the fourth quarter against Murray, if Dalvin Cook can keep slicing through defenses and popping up after big hits, if Cousins can direct the offense as resourcefully as he did on Sunday, "we'll win a lot of games," Zimmer said.
At present, though, the Vikings have lost two games by a total of four points, before home games against a pair of 2020 playoff teams and a division rival. Since the beginning of last season, 11 of their 18 regular-season games have been decided by six points or fewer; they are 5-6 in those games.
They come home for three games that could swing their season, starting with a late-afternoon matchup next week against a Seahawks team that is 5-0 against Zimmer's Vikings clubs and won by a point in Seattle last year.
For the 2021 schedule to produce the kinds of results that would validate the Vikings' current direction, they'll likely need to put away a few close ones.
"I wouldn't say [it's] deflating, but I mean, we lost," said wide receiver K.J. Osborn, who scored on a 64-yard pass from Cousins for his first NFL touchdown. "It doesn't matter how we lose. We lost. My college coach would say, 'If they score 50, we've got to score 51.' So it doesn't matter what all we did, what all we didn't do. We lost."
On a day when Cousins provided a level of efficiency that countered Murray's electricity, the Vikings' biggest laments were on special teams: a botched Joseph extra point, a Dede Westbrook punt return from the Vikings' 6 that lost 4 yards, a squib kick at the end of the first half that put the Cardinals closer to a field goal. (Joseph was not made available to reporters after the game.)
They could also point to blown assignments on Murray's 77-yard second-quarter stunner, when the quarterback drew attention from defenders as he floated to his left and heaved a throw to Rondale Moore while the receiver stood alone along the Cardinals' sideline.
"That was a tough situation for us to be in," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Just being in a zone coverage and having a guy break the pocket you want to make sure you maintain plastering your guy, the guy that you're in front of. That was a tough bullet to bite right before halftime. ... I felt like in the second half we came out balling, guys flying around making tackles, making plays. Just didn't make enough plays to win this game."
At the end of the first half, Cousins and Murray had combined to throw five touchdown passes; they had four incomplete passes between them. Cousins had even used his legs to serve up two big plays of his own: a 5-yard scramble for a first down that extended a Vikings touchdown drive, and a 29-yard run that exceeded his previous career long by 10 yards.
Following Joseph's field goal with 25 seconds left in the half, the Vikings opted for a squib kick instead of letting Joseph kick deep, trying to run a little more time off the clock. The Cardinals started their drive at the 34-yard line, and after Moore eluded tackle attempts from Mackensie Alexander and Eric Kendricks to slip out of bounds with one second left in the first half, Matt Prater launched a 62-yard field goal to put the Cardinals up 24-23 at halftime.
Arizona started the second half with the ball, but on Murray's first throw, the Vikings' defense responded with its own thunderbolt. Linebacker Nick Vigil dropped into a zone and undercut Murray's throw to Moore, returning it 38 yards for a touchdown that gave the Vikings the lead back.
"Just dropped to my spot [and] read his eyes," Vigil said. "He was staring it down, so I was able to break on it and catch the ball. I thought he was gonna get me from behind. That guy's a little faster than me, so he caught me pretty quick, but I was able to escape him."
The Cardinals regained the lead with their fourth TD drive of 75 yards or more, and were driving again with a one-point lead late in the third quarter after Murray hit A.J. Green on a go ball for 29 yards against Bashaud Breeland. On a second-and-9 from the Vikings' 38, though, Stephen Weatherly hit Murray as he heaved the ball deep, creating an easy opportunity for Xavier Woods to pick the ball off at the Vikings' 4.
The Vikings could only get a field goal out of the turnover to take a 33-31 lead, but their pass rush had started to affect Murray. The quarterback ran out of room to scramble with Danielle Hunter pursuing him to the perimeter, and instead was forced to throw downfield while backpedaling away from Vikings pass rushers.
Even with all the Vikings had done to rein Murray in after his electric first half, with all their two takeaways had meant to their chances, the quarterback had time for an indelible moment.
Dalvin Tomlinson and Hunter — who finished with three sacks — had pressured Murray on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter, and the Vikings sent an all-out blitz with safeties Woods and Harrison Smith on a fourth-and-5 from the Minnesota 41. Murray fired deep for Christian Kirk, who was alone downfield with Alexander, and Kirk caught the ball over Alexander for a 35-yard gain.
Cameron Dantzler — playing cornerback for the first time this year while Breeland dealt with a sore back — broke up a third-and-goal throw that was behind Green while Murray was under pressure, but Prater hit a go-ahead field goal with 4:25 left.
The kick turned out to be the last one that would go through the uprights.
"It seems like more than not, almost every game is like that," Cousins said. "So I think it's more the norm than the exception that it's going to come down to the final drive. It just seems that's the way pro football is."