By the time he finished his synopsis of everything that went wrong for the Vikings on Sunday, Mike Zimmer sounded like a mechanic ticking off issues that would lead to an expensive auto repair.
“It was probably as poor a first half as I’ve seen in quite a while,” the coach said. “We didn’t get anything done offensively. Special teams, we made a lot of mistakes. Defensively, we allowed the quarterback to get out and scramble, and we turned a couple guys loose in coverage again. We’re going to have to get things fixed in a hurry.”
The structure of the Vikings’ schedule dictates they will have to regroup quickly after Sunday’s 27-6 loss against the Buffalo Bills, with a Thursday night game against the Rams in Los Angeles looming before an NFC Championship Game rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Facing a Bills team that had given up 78 points in its first two games, had cornerback Vontae Davis retire at halftime last week and stripped defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier of playcalling duties in the second half, the Vikings were 16½-point favorites at home against the Bills.
Since 1978, according to Pro Football Reference, 80 teams had been favored by 16 points or more. Only five of them had lost — and none of them had lost by more than seven points.
None of them, to be sure, was drubbed as badly as the Vikings, who came within three minutes of being shut out at home for the first time since 1962. Trailing 27-0 at halftime, they fell hard to the Bills at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Unfortunately, you go back and look at the last three years of football that we played,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “We’ve done this once a year. Go back a couple of Decembers ago, we had a chance of making the playoffs. Then the Indianapolis Colts come in here and kick our butts. Last year in the NFC Championship Game, everyone knows what happened. One thing for us is that it happened in September. We’re going to learn from it; this could be the best thing for us. We have a really young and talented team, but we can’t just roll the ball out there and expect to win.”
Kirk Cousins’ touchdown pass to Rudolph spoiled a shutout for Frazier in his first regular-season game back in Minneapolis since the Vikings fired him at the end of 2013. Frazier, who got his play-calling duties back this week, was presented with a game ball after the victory.
The Vikings, facing quarterback Josh Allen, made things easier for the rookie with a raft of uncharacteristic mistakes.
Buffalo’s nine-play, 75-yard, game-opening march was facilitated by a 15-yard penalty on Linval Joseph for lowering his helmet and a half-the-distance-to-the-goal flag on Anthony Barr for grabbing Chris Ivory’s facemask. The Vikings’ first two drives lasted only three plays apiece, each of them ending with a sack and a Cousins fumble deep in Vikings territory.
“The first one, I was running,” Cousins said. “I made a decision to run at that point and [Bills defensive end Trent Murphy] just popped it out coming from pursuit. The second one was just in the pocket. Was just trying to step up around the edge and [defensive end Jerry Hughes] got around [the edge] and was able to club the ball out.”
By the time the first quarter was over, the Bills had built a lead (17 points) that eclipsed the margin by which the Vikings were favored. They were storming toward another touchdown, too, after a miscommunication between linebacker Eric Kendricks and rookie cornerback Mike Hughes appeared to set up Allen’s short pass to Ivory that he turned into a 55-yard gain on the final play of the first quarter.
The Bills finished that drive with an Allen 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down, and added another Stephen Hauschka field goal from 50 yards with 6:16 left in the first half, following an 11-yard completion to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on a third-and-20 that put Buffalo in field-goal range and had Zimmer yelling at cornerback Xavier Rhodes for playing too far off Benjamin.
The Vikings’ first play in Bills territory came with 9:36 left in the third quarter, after a short punt from Corey Bojorquez and a penalty gave them the ball at the Buffalo 42. Two plays later, Cousins threw a pass that bounced off running back Latavius Murray’s hands, hit linebacker Matt Milano in the legs and rolled into his lap as if it slid down a ramp.
Cousins finished the day 40-for-55 for 296 yards, a touchdown and an interception, in addition to his two lost fumbles.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Vikings’ six rushing attempts tied an NFL low since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
“Obviously, you can’t turn the ball over and give their offense a short field,” Cousins said. “We asked too much of our defense having to be out on the field so much. Very little time of possession for us.”
They will have very little time to stew about the defeat, with Thursday’s game against the 3-0 Rams coming up quickly. As the Vikings prepared to head west, they left home with a jolt.
“I’m not too worried about that, honestly, about getting them back,” Zimmer said. “We had a bad day. We’ve got to play better, obviously. I don’t have any doubts about this football team. But this is the NFL and you’ve got to go out and play every week.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org