Vikings scrambling to solve recurring problem of poor starts
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have outscored their opponents this season during the fourth quarter and overtime by 78 points, the best total in the league.
Those first 45 minutes of the game matter, too. This problem the Vikings have of falling behind — by a lot, sometimes — can’t be dismissed as they prepare for the playoffs.
“When we lose, we lose bad,” wide receiver Justin Jefferson said after the 41-17 loss at Green Bay on Sunday. “We have to find a way to fix that.”
The Vikings (12-4) clinched the NFC North with four games to go thanks to their crunch-time performances, setting a single-season NFL record with 11 wins by eight or fewer points.
They’ve more than made up for sloppy, sluggish or substandard starts with strong finishes.
Over the past four games, though, the Vikings have outscored their opponents in one first quarter, no second quarters and one third quarter.
Coach Kevin O’Connell pointed first to the lack of sustained drives by his team’s potent offense, but broadened the blame to implore the defense, special teams and coaching staff to step up as well and help stop the “avalanche” that has happened to these Vikings too often.
They’ve fallen behind by 33 or more points in three of their past seven games, a rare occurrence for the worst of teams — let alone a division winner.
The Vikings are only the second NFL club in the past 10 years and the ninth since the salary cap was installed in 1994 to face a 33-plus-point deficit three times in the same season, according to Sportradar data.
Arizona in 2018 was the only team to do so in four different games. The other three-timers were Buffalo in 2012, Tampa Bay in 2011, St. Louis in 2009, San Francisco in 2005, Arizona in 2003, Cleveland in 2000 and Philadelphia in 1998. The cumulative record of those clubs was 28-100. Only one (Buffalo: 6-10) won more than four games.
That explains why the Vikings, according to the latest FanDuel Sportsbook odds, are favored by just 2½ points on Sunday at Chicago (3-12) against a team with the second-worst record in the league.
Josh Metellus blocked a punt for the second straight game. The third-year backup safety has become a stalwart on special teams, where the Vikings will need more contributions such as that to be a factor in the playoffs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The offensive line is reeling. Backup center Austin Schlottman broke his lower leg on a second-and-goal run from the 1 that went for no gain. Right tackle Brian O’Neill also left in the first quarter after hurting his calf during an interception return by the Packers for a touchdown.
“We felt their loss,” O’Connell said.
With starting center Garrett Bradbury (back) sidelined for a fourth straight game and primary backup tackle Blake Brandel (knee) on injured reserve, the Vikings had to turn to Chris Reed at center and Oli Udoh at right tackle.
Reed, who played tackle in college and has been a guard his whole NFL career, was out of sync with quarterback Kirk Cousins on multiple snaps. The Vikings had five penalties up front: two delay of games, two false starts and one holding.
Duke Shelley started his fourth game at cornerback, even with Cameron Dantzler returning again from injury. Shelley broke up a pass in the end zone in the first quarter and did not allow a completion, per Sportradar calculation. That was his first such shutout as a starter.
Outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith has only been credited with one half of a sack over the past seven games. For the first time all season, Smith failed against his former team to register a single quarterback pressure, according to Sportradar analysis.
The injuries to O’Neill and Schlottman were “pretty significant,” O’Connell said Monday, and will keep them out this week. Their status for the playoffs has yet to be determined. Bradbury has been progressing, O’Connell said, but his return for the playoffs remains more hopeful than certain.
KEY NUMBER — minus-97.
That’s the league-worst point differential for the Vikings over the first three quarters this season.
The Vikings can’t finish ahead of the NFC East champion, whether it’s Philadelphia or Dallas. San Francisco has control of the No. 2 seed with a game against Arizona remaining. Unless the Cardinals — who by losing would secure the No. 3 overall pick in the draft — can help by stunning the 49ers, the Vikings will have the No. 3 seed and only one guaranteed home game for the playoffs.
Despite the decreased drama around their NFC standing and the importance of physical health for the playoffs, a complete performance — or better yet, a convincing victory — over the Bears would serve the Vikings well on the heels of the clunker against the Packers.
“That’s really what I want to see out of our team: Correct some of the things that we can control just across the board,” O’Connell said.
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