The Vikings finally lost a one-score game, 31-24, to the Giants in the wildcard round to end their season. It was a close game throughout, as expected, but as the 4th quarter wore on, the Vikings put themselves in a more difficult position to tie the game, or win it, as they couldn’t muster another scoring drive down by a touchdown. In their final drive, coming after one of the few defensive stops they had all game, they were helped by a lucky roughing the passer call, but later suffered from an incomplete pass to KJ Osborn on 3rd and 8, and then had all their wide receivers well covered on 4th and 8, forcing Kirk Cousins to check it down to TJ Hockenson as pressure arrived. But Hockenson wasn’t able to break a tackle to get the first down, effectively ending the game.
Giants Play Coverage, Abandon Blitz
One change from Week 16 was that Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale changed tactics, nearly completely abandoning his characteristic blitz packages- he blitzed 50% of Vikings dropbacks in Week 16, but not much on Sunday. Instead, he played coverage- employing a two-deep safety shell and often six defensive backs to help keep Justin Jefferson and the Vikings deep passing game under wraps the whole game.
Vikings Defense Less Effective than Week 16
On the defensive side, the Vikings continued with the soft coverage that has been their hallmark- and bane- all season. And unlike Week 16, they were unable to generate any turnovers. They forced the Giants to punt just two times the whole game, allowing the Giants to be much better on 3rd down and in the red zone compared to Week 16.
The Giants game plan was to pass even more than in Week 16, and simply clean up the turnovers and mistakes that hurt them the last matchup- which they did. But more or less the same game plan, just looking to execute it better. And they did. Unfortunately, the Vikings defense didn’t present them with any new wrinkles to thwart their plan, which may have contributed to their poorer showing.
Vikings Offense Largely Successful, But Couldn’t Keep Up with Giants Offense
The Vikings defense was largely successful, scoring 24 points and going 3 of 4 in the red zone, with no turnovers, but were only 4 of 10 on 3rd down and 1 of 2 on fourth down. The Giants offense went 7 of 13 on third down and 2 for 2 on fourth down, and that differential was the difference in the game. A better defensive performance would’ve given the Vikings a better chance to win.
Vikings Weren’t Able to Make the Key Plays in Critical Situations That Got Them Here
Ultimately, the Vikings were not able to make the key plays in critical situations that got them to the playoffs and made them winners of 11 one-score games. Both on offense, but especially on defense, there weren’t enough of those key plays- whether turnovers, third or fourth down stops, big time 3rd and 4th down conversions, explosive plays on offense- to carry them to victory.
Whether it was a case of going to the well one too many times, or not having a good enough game plan and adjustments, or simply not having enough energy to win another close game, the Vikings finally fell short and lost a one-score game to end their season.
Disappointing Loss, But Positive Season
As I watched this game, I found myself thinking that the Vikings were going down the same path one too many times. I was hopeful and even reasonably optimistic even to the final drive, but after 11 one-score games, it hits home that you can’t do this every time and expect to win. And while I expected the Vikings to win and move on to the divisional round, the prospect of facing a clearly better 49ers team seemed like a clear end of the road. Had the Vikings been able to put together the complete game that has eluded them most of the season, I might have felt a bit more optimistic, but even winning another close game would have been little cause for optimism next weekend.
So ultimately, I think the Vikings season ended one week short of its real potential, given the Vikings roster and performance this season. If I look back at preseason expectations, fewer than 10% of DN readers predicted 13 wins, and they topped their 9.5 over/under win total easily, running away with the division title in the process.
Looking ahead to the off-season, there are a lot of positives to take away from this season, but also a lot of tough decisions and conversations for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell with older players that have been core players and fan favorites for many years now. But overall there are more positives than negatives heading into the off-season, and while there will be some tough roster decisions ahead, there is reason to believe the Vikings can emerge in September with a better roster than they had this season.
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