Playoff heartbreak: Vikings season ends in 31-24 Wild Card home loss to Giants

The Minnesota Vikings had their doubters entering the NFC Playoffs despite winning their first division title in five seasons and earning their first home playoff game since the "Minneapolis Miracle."

The Vikings came into Wild Card Weekend 13-4, having won 11 one-score games but facing questions after three blowout losses. Their season ended in a 31-24 loss to the New York Giants in front of a sellout crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, 22 days after beating those same Giants 27-24 with the longest made field goal in franchise history. 

A team that thought it could make a playoff run, potentially to the Super Bowl in Arizona, couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity so few get with a home playoff game.

"I just know our team wanted very, very badly, we had a great week of prep, and wanted very badly to win this game. For it to be a one-score game and a chance to tie it up, it’s going to sting us for a long time," Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said after the loss. "This team is as competitive as any group that I’ve been around, each and every time they took the field with the expectation to win. These guys battled for 13 wins."

Football is a team game, but O’Connell can look squarely at his defense for Sunday’s loss, and he might be on the search for a new coordinator next season. Daniel Jones accounted for 379 total yards and two touchdowns. Saquon Barkley had 109 total yards and two scores. The Giants had 431 total yards, ran for 142 and averaged 4.7 yards per carry.

Jones became the first quarterback in NFL postseason history to pass for at least 300 yards, two touchdowns and also run for at least 70 yards.

Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell felt confident about his group going into Sunday, going so far as to say on Thursday, "I think you'll like the way we play." He could not have been more wrong. 

They looked a lot on Sunday like the same defense that ranked 31st in yards allowed, unable to consistently pressure Jones, inconsistent in stopping the run and leaving receivers open all over the field. The Giants were 7-of-13 on third down, and 2-of-2 on fourth down. The Giants had 26 plays on Sunday that either went for first downs or for 10-plus yards.

Changes will have to be made going into next season, but will one of them be Donatell?

"It’s a little fresh to be in that mode right now. I think Ed tried to do the best he could this year across the board installing the defense, the team we manifested together and hoped it would come to life," O’Connell said. "He worked his absolute tail off. I’m going to look at every aspect how we can improve. Those things are for a different time."

Kirk Cousins was 31-of-39 passing for 273 yards and three total touchdowns. Two of them were through the air to K.J. Osborn and Irv Smith Jr. T.J. Hockenson led the Vikings with 10 catches for 129 yards. Justin Jefferson had seven catches for 47 yards, but had just one catch in the second half.

With the Vikings down 31-24 and facing a 4th-and-8 with no timeouts left, Cousins wanted to hit Jefferson for a first down, but didn’t make the throw because of the Giants’ coverage. Rather than risk a downfield shot, Cousins checked down to Hockenson short of the sticks before he could get sacked. Needing eight yards, Hockenson got three. It was a season-ending turnover on downs, as the Giants ran the clock out.

"It hurts. I’m probably missing one, but this is probably the toughest loss I’ve had in my career. So it hurts," Cousins said. 

Why is it his toughest loss? He helped lead the Vikings to 13 wins for just the third time in franchise history, and they had bigger goals in store.

"All of the obvious reasons. Thirteen wins, I haven’t really sniffed that before and just the fact that the group, the free agents, no guarantee they’re going to be back. It’s hard to walk off the field, you want them all back and you just don’t know," Cousins said.

Osborn’s touchdown got the Vikings within 17-14 at the half. The Giants marched down the field to open the third quarter and got the lead to 24-14 on Jones’ touchdown to Daniel Bellinger. The Vikings got within 24-21 on Smith’s touchdown, and appeared poised to take the lead in the fourth quarter.

Cousins got a fourth down conversion on a sneak, but it was wiped away on a Christian Darrisaw false start. They settled for a game-tying Greg Joseph field goal. The Giants had the final answer with Barkley’s 2-yard go-ahead touchdown with 7:47 to play.

U.S. Bank Stadium was as loud as it’s ever been Sunday. Brian O’Neill sounded the Gjallarhorn and led the pregame Skol chant. Ludacris held a halftime concert. Adrian Peterson was in town, and Kirko Chains Jr. was at the game. It wasn’t enough for a Vikings victory.

It’s a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching finish for a team that won 13 regular season games and won its first division title in five years. Their season ends with a 13-5 record in just their second home loss of the season, and their first one-score loss. The Giants advance and head east to take on the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Divisional Playoffs next weekend.

"It’s just devastating to lose this type of way. It’s a tough situation, but we’re all leaning on each other and got each other’s back," Jefferson said.