BALTIMORE — Six days before they would travel east to face the Ravens, the Vikings found out defensive end Danielle Hunter would miss the rest of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle. The news came Friday that nose tackle Michael Pierce would miss a fourth consecutive game because of an elbow injury, and after a round of coronavirus retests on Sunday morning, they placed safety Harrison Smith on the COVID-19 reserve list 90 minutes before game time.
The three developments effectively left the Vikings two paths to leave M&T Bank Stadium with a victory: Last 12 rounds with former league MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' run game, or land the haymaker that would take them out early.
The Vikings had an opportunity to deliver a decisive blow. They missed it, and the game became the type of matchup they simply weren't fit to win.
Baltimore held the ball for more than 46 minutes, gaining 500 yards and running for 247, in a 34-31 overtime win that inflicted further damage to the Vikings' playoff hopes and sent them home to mull over the same nagging questions about how they got here.
Even with a pair of interceptions and their first kickoff return touchdown since Cordarrelle Patterson was on the roster, the Vikings squandered a 14-point third-quarter lead and lost their fifth one-score game of the season, falling to 3-5 after they'd rebounded to get to 3-3 at the bye week.
They are tied for ninth in the NFC, still only a game behind the Falcons for the conference's final playoff spot, but facing a schedule that won't make a rally any easier. They will play two of their next three games on the West Coast, with a Nov. 21 home game against the Packers in between their trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"I thought we played hard, I thought we fought. Had some guys step in for some other guys, but we didn't play good enough to win," coach Mike Zimmer said. "They started pounding us pretty good late in the game."
That the Ravens were in position to do so, running for 159 yards in the second half and overtime, was a reflection that the Vikings couldn't land the score that might have forced the sometimes-erratic Jackson to start throwing frequently.
The Vikings' first two drives went for touchdowns, covering 173 yards in 16 plays. Kirk Cousins hit Justin Jefferson for a 50-yard score on a deep shot where the receiver got behind the Ravens' coverage, and Dalvin Cook turned a toss play into a 66-yard gain on the Vikings' next drive, cutting back across the middle of the field after Brian O'Neill made two key blocks to spring him free.
After Camryn Bynum's leaping interception gave the Vikings the ball on the Ravens 16 with a chance to go up 21-3 before halftime, Cook lost a yard on first down and Cousins threw too high for Adam Thielen on second down before missing Jefferson on third down. Greg Joseph kicked a field goal instead. The Vikings would cross midfield only once more, on their late drive to send the game into overtime.
They ran 17 times for only 34 yards in the final three quarters and overtime. Cook gained 88 yards on four carries in the first quarter; his next nine attempts lost a total of 6 yards, as the Ravens defensive line kept the Vikings blockers from getting a hand on linebackers Patrick Queen, Josh Bynes and Tyus Bowser before they knifed in to make stops.
After the Ravens tied the score at 24 in the fourth quarter, the Vikings took only 1:34 to give the ball back, with Queen racing through a gap to stop Cook for an 8-yard loss on first down. Cousins' second-down pass for Jefferson was nearly intercepted, and his third-and-18 pass to Tyler Conklin gained only 5 yards.
"Three-and-outs don't help that so we have to talk first about that and staying on the field ourselves," Cousins said. "That's really a big part of it."
Kene Nwangwu brought the second-half kickoff back 98 yards for a touchdown and later picked up 9 on a fake punt. But given the second half to run the ball with Jackson leading the way, Baltimore wore the Vikings down. Jackson finished with 21 carries for 120 yards on a combination of scrambles and designed runs.
Ten of the Ravens' 18 plays on an 82-yard TD drive were runs, and Jackson hit Marquis Brown for 18 yards on third-and-15 when Cameron Dantzler tried to slip under Mark Andrews' block on a screen. They ran six times for 39 yards on their go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, and another six times for 42 yards on their overtime field-goal drive, overcoming a first-and-20 with a pair of runs after Jackson hit Brown for 13.
When asked if the defense was tired, Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said: "I mean, yeah. They have an extra guy when he's running the ball. We're getting pullers on the play, it's late in the game, overtime, definitely."
The only reason the game ended up in overtime was because the Vikings offense, as it's done, revved back to life with the game on the line. Its latest game-tying march featured a 27-yard leaping grab from fullback C.J. Ham (who was split wide out of an empty backfield), a 24-yard run from Cook and a fourth-down connection between Cousins and Jefferson.
The quarterback hit Thielen for a 1-yard touchdown to tie the score 31-31 with 1:03 left, and the Vikings defense mustered enough energy for one last stop, with Kenny Willekes and Sheldon Richardson splitting a sack to end regulation after a Andrews holding penalty took the Ravens out of Justin Tucker's considerable field-=goal range.
Anthony Barr made his biggest play of the season in overtime, tipping and then intercepting a Jackson pass to the flat, but the Vikings went three-and-out, with Cook losing 1 yard on a second-and-8 run.
"We could have won the game right there, and we didn't," Cook said. "We have to take that lump, go watch film [Monday] and get better."
The question of why their offense goes dormant for such long stretches, between the game-opening touchdown drives that happen almost every week and the frantic last-minute marches that are almost always necessary, remains perhaps the biggest concern about the 2021 Vikings. A depleted defense will deal with Justin Herbert and — presuming he recovers from COVID-19 by then — Aaron Rodgers in the next two weeks.
The Vikings are, in other words, likely to face offenses that will be just as unforgiving as the Ravens were on Sunday.
"Obviously, the product isn't showing on the field," Kendricks said. "We're losing these really tight games over and over, but at some point, it's going to turn. We battle every day, we come into work on Wednesday, and we study our opponent. We practice hard. We care for one another in the locker room, and it's just unfortunate that this keeps happening, because we do care about the fans, and we do care about winning.
"But we've got to start putting it all together."