MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings entered Sunday’s game against the L.A. Rams at U.S. Bank Stadium in control of their destiny for the NFC Playoffs. Win out, and you’re in.
After Sunday’s 30-23 loss to the Rams, that’s no longer the case as the Vikings fell out of the No. 7 spot in the NFC. They have games left at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers, a home game against the Chicago Bears and need some help from the outside to be involved in the postseason.
Mike Zimmer addressed the team with an impassioned speech before kickoff. The message? Bring your own energy.
It didn’t translate as the Vikings had 125 total yards in the first half, and managed just three points. Between the fans and players, there appeared to be a post-Christmas fatigue in what’s normally a tough place for opponents to play.
"It felt like it was a little dead inside of here today. Usually we’ve got a nice buzz and for whatever reason, it was not there," said linebacker Anthony Barr, who had two interceptions on the day. "I’m not saying that’s why we lost. Christmas hangover, I don’t know. I don’t what y’all did last night, too much fun I guess."
A team needing to be desperate for a win to maintain its playoff chances and keep its season alive started slow. By the time the Vikings found some life, it was too late.
"I was telling the guys we came out way too slow. We didn’t have any energy the first quarter, I don’t really know. I felt it as soon as I came into the locker room," wide receiver Justin Jefferson said. "I was trying to pick up the guys, but still came out slow."
Zimmer’s plan to beat the Rams was to control the game by running the ball. It didn’t work. The Vikings, without Dalvin Cook due to COVID-19 protocols, ran for just 66 yards and averaged three yards per carry. Alexander Mattison had 13 carries for 41 yards and a touchdown.
The Rams ran for 159 yards against the Vikings, with Sony Michel going for 131 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
"Disappointing loss. We talked all week about controlling the game with our tempo, bring able to run the football. They ran the football way better than we did today," Zimmer said. "We had three turnovers and ended up getting 10 points out of those. Get back to work and keep fighting."
Matthew Stafford kept it interesting for the Rams, throwing three interceptions and having two others dropped, one by Cam Dantzler and the other Kris Boyd. The Vikings had the ball five times in the red zone on Sunday, scoring touchdowns just twice. They were also just 2-of-12 on third down conversions.
The Vikings had the ball six times in the first half, and only one of those drives was more than four plays. Their second series of the game, which lasted 12 plays, ended without points after a Kirk Cousins pass in the end zone went off the hands of KJ Osborn and was picked off by Travin Howard.
Their failure to be more aggressive closer to the end zone and settling for Greg Joseph field goals came back to haunt them.
"I think we should be more aggressive as soon as we get down there. But I’m not the one calling the plays. I’m just here to do my job and do what’s told of me," said Jefferson, who finished with eight catches for 116 yards and is now the all-time leading receiver in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons. "We can’t get down in the red zone that many times and come out with three points."
Down 10-0, Barr’s first interception set up a Joseph field goal. The Vikings trailed 13-3 at the half and cut it to 13-10 early in the third quarter after Barr’s returned his second interception to the Rams' 2-yard line. Mattison scored on the next play.
The Vikings got the ball back, but had a drive stall because of a Brian O’Neill false start. They had to punt, and Brandon Powell returned it 61 yards for a touchdown and 20-10 Rams’ lead.
Whatever momentum the Vikings had built was gone.
"Obviously the punt return was a big play in the game," Zimmer said.
Stafford hit Odell Beckham Jr. for a 7-yard touchdown to give the Rams a 27-13 lead with 11:37 to play. The Vikings answered with Cousins hitting Osborn for a 6-yard touchdown to get within 27-20 with 8:21 to play. The Rams pushed it back to two scores at 30-20 on Matt Gay’s third field goal of the day with 2:03 left.
Joseph converted from 44 yards out with 32 seconds left, but the Vikings couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick to seal the loss. To complicate matters, Adam Thielen had three catches for 40 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter with an ankle injury, the same ankle that caused him to miss the last two weeks.
For the fourth time this season, the Vikings had a chance to get above .500. A win would’ve also solidified their playoff position. Now there’s work to do with only two guaranteed games left.
"I think we’ve had multiple opportunities to put ourselves in better position. It just hasn’t bounced our way sometimes. We’ve still got to win our last two games, we can’t really worry about scenarios," Barr said. "If we lose, we’re out. We’ve just got to win these last two and let the chips fall where they may."