Kevin O’Connell and his staff fixed a lot of what had been ailing the Vikings the past couple of years — Kirk Cousins, the offensive line and the team’s mettle in close games.
The Vikings were 11-1 in one-score games this season; unfortunately, the one loss came on Sunday in the first round of the playoffs, a 31-24 setback that ended, rather abruptly, a one-of-kind season yet wasn’t a real surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.
Minnesota finished the regular season with an NFC North championship and 13-4 record but accomplished it despite a porous, if often plucky, defense.
It wasn’t hard to find the cold center of the Vikings’ loss on Sunday. After Minnesota took the opening kick and marched 75 yards for a 7-0 lead, the Giants scored the next 17 points on three drives that spent a total of 16 minutes, 7 seconds of the game clock.
Minnesota pulled within three at halftime, and tied the score 24-24 with 12:48 remaining, but the tone had been set early. The Vikings couldn’t stop the Giants from scoring. New York punted only twice, and not until there was just 4:12 left in the third quarter.
Had the game gone four more quarters, Minnesota might have scored 42 points but the Giants would have scored 50. Asked after Sunday’s loss whether the new 3-4 defensive scheme or defensive coordinator Ed Donatell would be back next season, O’Connell was diplomatic.
“It’s a little kind of fresh to be in that mode right now,” O’Connell said.
The new Vikings regime made some substantial additions to the defense, acquiring rush end Z’Darius Smith, linebacker Jordan Hicks and tackle Harrison Phillips, but this was essentially the defense that former coach Mike Zimmer and former GM Rick Spielman spent too much time and money building around. This defense is old and expensive; certainly it wasn’t up to the task against a wild-card team that before Sunday had won once since Nov. 13.
There is a sense among observers that Donatell, a longtime defensive backs coach with his third team as a coordinator, didn’t do a great job this season but he did lead defense that had just been part of consecutive losing seasons and make it part of an exciting 13-4 regular season.
“I think Ed tried to do the best he could this year, across the board, installing a defense and the scheme that we kind of manifested together and hoped it would come to life,” O’Connell said.
Sometimes it did, mostly because it had a knack for forcing timely turnovers, most notably a miraculous fumble recovery by Eric Kendricks and two interceptions by Patrick Peterson in a 33-30 overtime victory at Buffalo on Nov. 11. Without the timely turnover, the defense was a problem.
A season-opening victory over Green Bay was the Vikings’ only relatively easy win this season. And while the Vikings only lost one one-score game this season, they were blown out — like never had a shot — in three of their other four losses. In big losses to Philadelphia, Dallas and Green Bay (outscored 105-17), the Vikings forced one total turnover, an interception by Jordan Hicks in a 24-7 loss at Philadelphia in Week 2.
Without turnovers, as was the case on Sunday, the defense was a white-knuckle affair. Of New York’s six touchdown drives, only one was for fewer than 75 yards (they outgained Minnesota 431 yards to 332).
When the Giants answered the Vikings’ opening scoring drive with touchdown drives of 75 and 81 yards — and required only nine total plays and 5:15 off the clock — it was pretty clear what was going to happen. The Vikings rallied behind Cousins, as they have done so many times this season, and even had a chance to win in the closing 2 minutes, but it was clear the magic had been used up.
It’s clear this defense as largely composed is largely used up, as well. Never was it more clear than on a third-and-1 on the Giants’ second drive of the third quarter. Danielle Hunter had Matt Breida corralled behind the line of scrimmage and couldn’t get him down, and a charging Harrison Smith couldn’t stop Bredia before he converted the first down.
By next season, Smith will be 34, Hunter 29, Eric Kendricks 31 and Patrick Peterson 33. They all probably have football left in the tank but they won’t all be in Minnesota next season; in the end, they were the leaders on a defense that finished ranked 31st of 32 NFL teams.
“(The Giants) schematically did some things to maybe take advantage of what we were doing, but across the board, we’re going to take a look at everything,” O’Connell said. “It’s my job. I’m responsible for all three phases of our football team, and we’ll definitely take a deep dive into it and find a way.”