Vikings defense falters again to force quick postseason exit

Published 8:27 pm Sunday, January 15, 2023

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings faced plenty of questions about their legitimacy as a contender in the NFC, the rare 13-win team with a negative point differential during the regular season.

The source of the doubt could be clearly traced back to a defense that finished second-to-last in the league in yards allowed, and their 31-24 wild card round loss to the New York Giants on Sunday was the final and most painful piece of evidence why.

Playoff newbie Daniel Jones passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 78 yards to lead an unflappable performance by a Giants team that was nowhere near the NFL’s most productive offenses in 2022.

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The tone was set the first time the Giants touched the ball, when they went 85 yards in five plays for the tying score — a 28-yard run around left end on a quick pitch to Saquon Barkley. He knifed through a seam between his blockers and somehow scampered all the way down the sideline untouched.

Then the Giants went 81 yards in four snaps, capped by a touchdown pass by Jones to Isaiah Hodgins. The first play of that drive was a 47-yard pass to Darius Slayton, who sprung wide open on the type of crossing route the Vikings were vulnerable against so often this season with their two-high safety scheme and underneath zones.

Jones took advantage of the typically deep drops by Vikings linebackers into their coverages to run free when he didn’t see anyone open. Usually he did, with Hodgins and Slayton especially successful at working those spaces in the middle of the field.

The 17 rushing attempts by Jones, including kneel-downs, were the second-most by a quarterback in a postseason game, according to Sportradar data available since 1948. Lamar Jackson ran the ball 20 times for Baltimore in a loss to Tennessee on Jan. 11, 2020. Only 13 quarterbacks in NFL history have rushed for more yards in a playoff game, per Sportradar.

When a defense is struggling so consistently to turn the ball back over without giving up a score, the offense can find itself in the unenviable position of having to be perfect — and the Vikings weren’t quite that Sunday.

They had to punt on two what-could-have-been drives in the first half.

On third-and-1 at their own 34, O’Connell called a trick play that resulted in a 2-yard loss on a throwback pass from Justin Jefferson to Kirk Cousins.

Then on second-and-3 at their own 47, a wide-open Smith dropped a short throw to the sideline before another incompletion.

The Vikings rallied as they’ve done so often this season from two separate 10-point deficits, but when Greg Joseph made the tying field goal early in the fourth quarter they were kicking themselves for not taking the lead. Cousins ran a successful sneak on fourth-and-1 at the 15, but that was negated by a false start on left tackle Christian Darrisaw.

Head coach Kevin O’Connell’s first year — a 13-4 record to match the second-most regular-season wins in franchise history and an NFC North title that was clinched with three games to go — was an unquestionable success. But O’Connell will face one of his most important decisions for Year Two next week when he determines whether or not to bring back defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.

“I think Ed tried to do the best he could this year across the board, installing the defense and the scheme that we had kind of manifested together and hoped would come to life,” O’Connell said. “He worked his absolute tail off.”