A 3-3 record heading into bye week represents a good jumping off point for the Minnesota Vikings as they head into the most critical segment of their season, right?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, they did emerge with a 34-28 road victory in overtime against the Carolina Panthers, but it appeared the Vikings were intent on blowing a game that they dominated for long stretches.
Giving away chances to win has been the Vikings’ signature throughout the season. That’s how they lost the opener to the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime, and the second game of the season to the Arizona Cardinals.
That was nearly the same scenario a week ago in their last-second victory over the Detroit Lions, but Greg Joseph hit a 54-yard field goal on the final play of the game.
However, all of those giveaways paled in comparison to the ridiculous series of failures in Sunday’s game against the Panthers.
Go back to the 8:36 mark of the fourth quarter, because that’s when the game should have been sealed. The Vikings had a 28-17 lead, and they had just recovered a fumble by Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold. The Minnesota pass rush had caused problems for the Panthers throughout the game, and Everson Griffen and Armon Watts crashed in on Darnold and forced the ball out of his hands. Dalvin Tomlinson recovered the ball at the Carolina 38-yard line.
Mike Zimmer’s team had a two-score lead and the ball, but they did nothing with the gift. After three plays netted six yards, Joseph missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.
The Panthers took advantage and got within one score when Zane Gonzalez booted a 23-yard field goal.
On the ensuing possession, it seemed like the Vikings learned their lesson as they attacked on first down as Kirk Cousins rolled to his right and hit tight end Trey Conklin with a 40-yard catch and run. But instead of continuing to attack and putting the game away with a field goal or a touchdown, conservatism won out and the Vikings buttoned everything up and were forced to punt.
Darnold, who had been overwhelmed throughout much of the afternoon, led the Panthers on a tying 96-yard drive that included two ridiculous fourth-down conversions.
The Vikings would have their opportunity to win on the last play of regulation when Joseph lined up for a 47-yard field goal, but he pushed it wide to the right.
The fates turned out to be on Minnesota’s side as they won the coin toss to start overtime, and Cousins led the Vikings to the win when he hit wideout K.J. Osborn with a 27-yard TD pass that was fairly spectacular. Osborn made the catch as he closed in on the sidelines, got both feet inbounds, dove inside the pylon with control of the ball and held onto it when he hit the ground. He eventually would lose possession, but not until he made his football move and crossed the goal line.
The Vikings have spectacular talent on the offensive side of the ball, and Cousins and his mates put on a show against Carolina and its powerful defense. Cousins completed 33 of 48 passes for 373 yards and 3 TDs without an interception. Running back Dalvin Cook had his best game of the year with 140 yards and a touchdown, while Adam Thielen caught 11 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown, and Justin Jefferson added 8 catches for 80 yards.
Few teams can match the Vikings for talent at all the skill positions, and Osborn is also giving them some surprising depth at wideout.
The defense is much improved over the ridiculously poor performance that it put on last season. The Vikings had 4.0 sacks against Darnold, and none of them came from Danielle Hunter. That’s a good sign, because it shows the defense can get the job done even when Hunter does not have his best game. That does not happen very often, as Hunter already has 6.0 sacks in the first six games of the season.
The biggest problem the Vikings have is their inability to dominate when they have the opportunity. They have won three games in spite of themselves, and they have to find a way to finish opponents when they are down. That has to come from Zimmer and his coaching staff.
There are other problems as well, and it’s one that is very familiar to the Vikings. Special teams is once again an area of heartbreak. In addition to two late missed field goals attempts, they had a punt blocked that resulted in a touchdown for the Panthers.
The schedule gets harder after they return to action in Week 8. It starts with a home game against the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys followed by road games against the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers.
The Vikings have the skill level to compete with all of those teams, but they have to show they can punish opponents if they get them down.
Is that something they can master in two weeks? That may be something that is out of their grasp.