The first half for the Vikings was about as bad as it could get. 47 yards of offense, multiple fumbles, stupid penalties, and a defense that got torched for 20 points against a backup QB starting his first road game. The 3-6 Broncos, coming off a bye-week, completely dominated the 7-3 Vikings for thirty minutes with their 4th ranked defense, deep passing game, and ball control, holding the ball for 19 of the first 30 minutes.
The Vikings play-calling was lackluster, while the Broncos game plan of starting fast, taking shots down the field, while taking away Dalvin Cook and Stefon Diggs was very effective. All this despite Mike Zimmer banging on his team all week to head-off a ‘‘trap-game,’ with the Vikings looking past a 3-6 Broncos team at home ahead of their bye week. Zimmer reminded his team of the Broncos’ 4th ranked defense, and that they lost three games by 2 points or less. But to no avail.
The Vikings, 10.5 point favorites at home, played arguably their worst half of football all season - and bringing out a chorus of boo-birds by the end of the half.
The Vikings began the second-half down 20-0, facing a statistical doom as no team down 20+ points at halftime had comeback to win in the last 99 attempts.
The Vikings got the ball to start the second-half and changed things up by immediately going up-tempo - something they continued for the rest of the game on offense to try to overcome a dominating Broncos’ defense.
Kirk Cousins led the Vikings on a 75 yard TD drive to open the second-half, and repeated that result on every subsequent drive - four TDs in all. Cousins finished the day 29/35 for 319 yards, 3 TDs, and a 133.5 passer rating. He also had a lost fumble on a huge hit and sack by Shelby Harris - one of 5 sacks on the day and 3 in the first half.
But going up-tempo, Cousins carried the Vikings in the second-half, as the running game continued to get shut-down (Dalvin Cook had only 26 rushing yards), while the Vikings offensive line and defensive secondary continued to struggle.
Huge Comeback Victory
The Vikings completed a very unlikely comeback after the Vikings defense once again bent - allowing the Broncos a 19 play drive into the Vikings red zone with 2 minutes to go, needing a touchdown to overcome a 27-23 deficit. But in the end they held - stopping the Broncos on their final three pass attempts from inside the 5 yard line as time expired to secure the win.
It was not only the only time a team overcame a 20 point halftime deficit to win in the last 100 opportunities, it was the only time in the past 40 years a team overcame a 20+ point halftime deficit by scoring on every second-half possession.
In so doing, the Vikings saved their postseason and division title hopes, while avoiding a trap-game loss, and moved to 8-3 going into their bye-week.
But it was a big comeback largely due to an exceptionally poor first-half performance from the Vikings.
It was a classic setup for a trap game. The Vikings had come off a big win at Dallas, and were looking forward to their bye-week with a few key injured players sitting out. Meanwhile the Broncos had the 4th ranked defense and were willing to take chances with a backup QB and nothing to lose - having been all but eliminated from playoff contention.
Vikings - and Cousins - Continue to Dispel Narratives
Clearly it was a poor showing from the Vikings, starting flat with a second-rate game plan, poor play calling, and many miscues.
But Kirk Cousins, the Vikings coaching staff, and the Vikings offense was able to engineer a huge comeback and win - with Cousins carrying the team.
Cousins isn’t supposed to do that, according to his career narrative. But he was nearly flawless (153.5 passer rating) in leading the Vikings to 27 second-half points - including 20 in the fourth quarter. And against the 4th ranked defense. He had been 0-10-1 when trailing in the fourth quarter as a Viking.
More importantly, perhaps, Cousins didn’t look like that QB who presses in late game comeback attempts, often forcing balls and committing turnovers. He seemed in command of the up-tempo offense, didn’t force balls or make any turnover worthy throws, while taking what the defense gave him and delivering accurate throws.
That experience adds to Vikings’ confidence, experience in those game situations, and to the collective wisdom of the Vikings’ coaching staff. Going up-tempo - something Kevin Stefanski has not done much at all in the past - was key in overcoming the Broncos defense in the second-half.
The Vikings have now won six of their last seven, and are 8-3 with five key December games yet to play. They are also one of only two undefeated teams at home (Patriots) with three of those five remaining games at US Bank stadium.
But for the second straight game, the Vikings defensive secondary - particularly the cornerback position - got beat early and often. The Vikings CBs gave up chunk plays in both halves. The problem wasn’t in giving up separation, it was lacking the tenacity and finishing ability with contested catches.
Trae Waynes was able to make a key break-up in the end zone at the end of the game, but also gave up a chunk play on a trick play where he was in good position to make a play, but somehow managed not to.
Xavier Rhodes continues to struggle in that regard, and so did Mike Hughes. That inability to finish may have something to do with confidence, and/or lack of a killer instinct. It may also be a fear of pass interference, which shouldn’t be a concern if they’re going for the ball.
Whatever the case, fixing the miscues at cornerback has to be a high priority for Mike Zimmer and the Vikings defense during the bye-week and beyond.
Part of the problem with the Vikings pass coverage is a failure of the Vikings pass rush to get pressure consistently. Too often opposing QBs have too much time to make progressions and wait on route development. That often leads to the chunk plays the Vikings pass defense has been giving up. Danielle Hunter is as guilty as any for the lack of pressure, seemingly disappearing for much of a game when it comes to generating QB pressure. He needs to figure that out over the bye week. Getting Linval Joseph back may help.
Offensively, the Vikings offensive line and running game have been inconsistent over the course of the past few games. Against both the Chiefs and Broncos, the Vikings failed to get their run game going, particularly the outside zone run. And against the Broncos, they gave up five sacks as well, including a strip sack that was difficult to blame on Cousins given how quickly and powerfully the hit came on Cousins’ blind side.
Riley Reiff has been struggling more of late, but the interior linemen can also struggle at times as well - in both run and pass blocking. The worst of them early on - Bradbury and Elflein - have improved over the course of the season, but there is plenty of room for improvement and greater consistency.
Climbing the Wall of Worry
At the beginning of the season, most pundits pegged the Vikings as a fringe playoff team at best, and most likely of the one-and-done variety. A few were more optimistic, but after a 2-2 start, the specter of the 2018 season loomed large.
Four wins later, the worries that remain were can the Vikings beat good teams, and can Kirk Cousins deliver in big games, against good teams, in prime time.
The win at Dallas helped ease those worries. Cousins’ comeback performance against the 4th ranked Broncos defense helped in that regard too.
But worries still remain.
The first is whether they can beat not just good teams, but genuine Super Bowl contenders. The Vikings next game at Seattle will be a big test in that regard.
Another worry is can the Vikings, and their coaching staff, elevate their game, be more consistent, and get hot going into the postseason. The Vikings five game slate in December, including games at Seattle, at the Chargers, and the Packers, is a chance to overcome that worry too.
But there’s a lot to accomplish. Getting the most out of the bye-week would be a good first step. Beating the Seahawks in Seattle would be a giant second step.
But for now, time for players to get healthy, and coaches to add to their collective wisdom.