The game clock ticked down from 35 seconds, as Kirk Cousins cupped his hands over the earpieces in his helmet and tried to make out Kevin O'Connell's play call, over the noise from a U.S. Bank Stadium crowd celebrating a fourth-down completion to T.J. Hockenson and through a headset the Vikings coach later said was malfunctioning.
Though he could not clearly hear O'Connell's directions, Cousins said he arrived at the same play the coach was trying to call. The Vikings, with no timeouts, opted to line up without spiking the ball, O'Connell said, to deny the Chargers defense time for substitutions or organization.
There were 12 seconds left when the Vikings ran their 18th red-zone play on Sunday, a day when their final two trips to the doorstep ended without the four points they needed in a 28-24 loss.
Cousins fired a pass for Hockenson he figured was safely away from linebacker Nick Niemann, and would either be caught for a game-winning score or fall to the ground for an incomplete pass that would allow the Vikings to huddle.
"I'll put it off, away from his frame to a safe spot," Cousins recalled. "You obviously don't expect the ball to bounce up twice in the air and get intercepted. My thought was, the quicker I can get this thing out and put it to a safe spot, we give ourselves another chance, if in fact it is incomplete."
There would be no additional try for the Vikings, once Kenneth Murray Jr. intercepted the twice-deflected pass. The supply of second chances for the Vikings' 2023 season is already shrinking.
They are 0-3, for the seventh time in franchise history and first time since Justin Jefferson's rookie year in 2020. They are two games behind a pair of NFC North rivals after a third straight loss in the kind of one-score contest they won almost weekly last year. Their next attempt to end a three-game losing streak at U.S. Bank Stadium will come against the defending Super Bowl champions. They allowed the Chargers to throw for 445 yards, a game after giving up 259 rushing yards against the Eagles. They have now lost seven fumbles in three games.
"Very tough ending to a football game that, quite frankly, we felt like was in our grasp again," O'Connell said. "We didn't execute at the end overall the way we needed to on either of our final two possessions to get one of those footballs in the end zone."
The Vikings went 1-for-4 in the red zone, turning the ball over on downs with 2:53 left when the Chargers stopped Alexander Mattison at the goal line on second down and Cousins threw incomplete on third and fourth downs. Then, after Jonathan Bullard slipped through the Los Angeles line to stop Joshua Kelley when coach Brandon Staley tried to win the game with a fourth-and-1 conversion, the Vikings got the ball back at the Chargers 24 with 1:47 left.
Cousins led K.J. Osborn too far outside to miss a touchdown on first down. The Chargers stopped Mattison for a 1-yard loss on second down; and Cousins threw incomplete on back-to-back plays where calf cramps for Jefferson and a hard hit on Hockenson stopped the game for injury, leading to a delay-of-game penalty because the Vikings were out of timeouts.
The disjointed sequence ended with the fourth-down completion to Hockenson, the scramble to call the final play and Murray's interception.
O'Connell said afterward he was trying to be too aggressive by sending Cousins to the line to run a play rather than spiking the ball. "No matter what benefit we had [from] going fast, the value was not received, clearly, with what that execution looked like in the moment," he said. "Looking back on it, I wish I would have just had him clock it and not tried to steal one there."
Said Osborn: "It comes down to those tipped balls and being just inches away. We could feel it; we were on the 1-yard line with a lot of snaps inside the 20. Obviously, super frustrating not being able to get it done."
Chargers offensive coordinator Kellen Moore ordered up a series of quick passes against the Vikings' steady blitzes for Justin Herbert, who completed 40 of his 47 attempts for 405 yards while Pro Bowl running back Austin Ekeler missed the game because of an ankle sprain.
The Chargers used the short passes as a setup, too. After Herbert threw a backward pass for Keenan Allen (who caught 18 passes for 215 yards on 20 targets), the wide receiver launched it downfield for a wide-open Mike Williams and a 49-yard touchdown in the third quarter for a 21-10 lead. Herbert hit eight more passes for at least 20 yards, against a defense that had allowed just three such plays before Sunday.
The Vikings used a mix of heavier pressures with no safeties deep and five-man blitzes with zone coverages behind them. Of the latter, O'Connell said, "that's when it seems to me like Justin [Herbert] had quite a bit of time to sit in there and push the ball down the field when he wanted to. So that's where we've just got to try to find a way to get home."
The decisive score for the Chargers fit the theme of the day. When Herbert fired downfield for Joshua Palmer against a six-man pressure in the fourth quarter, cornerback Akayleb Evans undercut his throw to line up a chance for an interception. The ball bounced out of Evans' hands and off his helmet as he dove backward, before Palmer hauled it in for a 30-yard touchdown that gave Los Angeles the lead for good.
Evans sat on the field stunned as safety Josh Metellus ran over to console him. Asked what teammates had told him after the play, Evans replied briefly: "Stay in it. Stay in it for the long game."
The Vikings' next two road games are against the winless Panthers (who could be missing No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young) and Bears (who were blown out in Kansas City on Sunday). Their next two home games are against the defending champion Chiefs in a late-afternoon start and the undefeated 49ers in a Monday night game.
Barring a tie between the Packers and Lions at Lambeau Field on Thursday night, one of those teams will be 3-1 before the Vikings play next. A year after the Vikings won the division by four games, they could be scrambling to stay in the race in Week 4.
Players had different coping mechanisms for Sunday's particularly bitter loss. Jefferson stood sullenly by himself as the Chargers kneeled out the clock. Some players exited the locker room quickly, eager to dispatch the loss. Cousins sat in front of his locker for several minutes, his head buried in his hands.
The longest-tenured member of their defense summed up their plight succinctly.
"That's how it is. It's always one play," said safety Harrison Smith, in his 12th season with the team. "You can always look back, 'If I'd have done this, he'd done that.' You just have to make them. That's what winning teams do: they make them."