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Matthew Coller: Blown 'tush push' was only small part of Vikings meltdown in Cincy

The Vikings' playoff odds took a hit as they let a two TD lead get away, in part because of a blown QB sneak.

CINCINNATI — To say that teams usually win the type of game that the Minnesota Vikings played against the Cincinnati Bengals would be a massive understatement. Per ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, the Vikings had won 84 straight games when leading by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Their last loss came in 1993 and overall they have won 97.7% of those games. On Saturday afternoon the Bengals trailed 17-3 when the fourth quarter began. When the dust settled, Cincinnati bucked history by winning 27-24 and delivered a roundhouse kick to the face to the Vikings’ playoff chances.

The most notable Oh No in Ohio moment came in overtime when the Vikings failed two straight QB sneaks on third and fourth down at the Cincinnati 42-yard line to give the ball back to the Bengals. Jake Browning then put the Vikings away with a 44-yard completion to receiver Tyler Boyd that set up the winning field goal.

Naturally the sneaks became the main focus of fans on social media following the game, so much so that we have to go through the layers. First, why head coach Kevin O’Connell did not elect to run the ball with Ty Chandler, who had a career game with 132 yards.

“I think anytime you're inside of a couple of feet, and then looking at about four or five inches there, we don't really want to have to turn around and extend the ball and hand off another ball,” O’Connell said after the crushing loss. “I trust our guys in that moment to execute with a push right there.”

Per CBS Sports, quarterback sneaks have been successful 85.9 percent of the time on third or fourth-and-1 since 2017, while all other plays have converted 69.1 percent of the time in those situations.

OK but the execution of the sneak was particularly odd. The Vikings used undersized receiver Brandon Powell to execute the “tush push” from behind quarterback Nick Mullens. O’Connell’s explanation was short but he seemed to indicate that Powell was out there to keep the opponent’s personnel grouping on the field. If they have lighter players i.e. corners/safeties then they can’t load up with big people to stop the push.

“We (were) trying to keep them out (there) if we could,” he said.

But wait, there’s more.

After the first push O’Connell was already preparing his first down call because he thought the sneak worked. In overtime the refs can automatically review plays, which the Vikings’ head coach was told they did despite a replay appearing that Mullens had crossed the first down line.

“I was told they did [review the first sneak],” O’Connell said. “I was getting some information from the guys up top. If they told me they didn't look at it. I was going to take the time out, but I was told that they did look at it. The guys upstairs were still saying it just would have come down to that point if there was the visual evidence. I think the guys up top were looking at their view of it looking down, and seeing Nick's (Mullens’) second effort there. I started calling a first-and-10 play, but the side judge on the other side must have had him short.”

And as such does, the failed tush push of 2023 will forever be remembered as the play that knocked the Vikings out of the playoff race as if Nate Poole had come a few weeks early. Or it will be completely forgotten because they make the postseason. We’ll see what happens there. Either way, Saturday’s Queen City Calamity gets thrown on the pile of absolutely shocking losses at the end of games this season.

First there was Tampa Bay, in which the Bucs picked off a potential go-ahead touchdown at the end of the first half and held onto the ball for nearly the entire second half of the 20-17 Viking loss. Then there was the loss to the Chargers which included the ball bopping off Akayleb Evans for a L.A. touchdown and TJ Hockenson dropping a ball into the opponent’s hands in the end zone to seal the game. The Chiefs won against the Vikings in part due to a picked up flag on pass interference. The Bears got a game-winning drive from Justin Fields after lights out defensive play for 59 minutes. The Broncos threw a last-second touchdown pass to receiver Courtland Sutton after a late fumble opened the door for a comeback. And then there was the Taj Mahal of meltdowns, Saturday in Cincinnati.

If you are questioning O’Connell’s decision making on the sneaks, fair enough. The results were bad. Even if it is a high probability play, they couldn’t pull it off and it’s a tough sell that the smallest guy on the field should be pushing tush. But it’s certainly ignoring a lot of other stuff that happened along the way to focus on that play.

As is so often the case, the Vikings had chances to put away the Bengals early and did not do it. While Nick Mullens put together a strong enough showing to clear 300 yards passing and complete near 80% of his passes, two interceptions that came via poor decisions were at the root for why the Vikings were only sitting at 98% win probability and not 100% later in the game.

The first pick ruined a drive that had gone 13 plays, 70 yards. The Vikings were up 7-3 facing third-and-9 on the Cincinnati 16-yard line. Mullens fired the ball into traffic and it came up short of where receiver Justin Jefferson was running. Cornerback Mike Hilton slid to the ground and brought the ball in for the INT.

“I saw some space out front, and I just have to be careful, I have to be disciplined,” Mullens said.

The journeyman QB threw his 25th career interception in 18 starts on the following Vikings possession, only this one was much worse. The Vikings could have gone into halftime up 10-3 and getting the ball back but instead Mullens tried to get rid of the ball as he was getting sacked and tossed it right into the hands of defensive tackle BJ Hill as he was going down.

“I was trying to get rid of the football,” Mullens said. “I don’t want to take sacks. Analytically, probably smarter to just take the sack, but I was just trying to get rid of the football.”

On the defensive side, the Vikings looked totally dominant until the final Bengals drive of the third quarter. After Browning threw an interception to open the third quarter and the Vikings only managed a field goal, the ex-Viking QB seemed to suddenly be inspired — or the Bengals figured something out offensively. Browning completed seven straight passes on a touchdown drive to bring Cincinnati within seven early in the fourth quarter, the longest of which only traveled 16 yards.

“I think teams are probably seeing a way to hold up if we send a pressure,” O’Connell said. “That's one thing. If we don't, they're trying to find some pockets in our zones. There's been some hard throws on the dig cuts, and we have to find a way to crowd that area of the field and make them throw it somewhere else.”

Brian Flores’ defense has been so dominant of late that they rose to the top five in points allowed prior to the loss in Cincinnati. But the fourth quarter was filled with missed opportunities to put the game away. After a three-and-out by the Vikings offense, Browning converted a third-and-21 to Ja’Marr Chase and then Joe Mixon blasted into the end zone on fourth-and-1.

Nick Mullens

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson (91) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Nick Mullens (12) in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 15 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Minnesota Vikings at PayCor Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023. The Bengals won on an overtime field goal.

Had pushing Mullens’ cheeks not failed, we would be talking about how much better the offense operated as a whole against Cincinnati than in previous weeks versus Chicago and Las Vegas. Following the Bengals’ game-tying drive, the Vikings shot back with a 75-yard score that was their most impressive in weeks (if you ignore the negated pick-six). In total they finished with 424 yards, 132 of which came from the backfield with running back Ty Chandler shining in place of veteran Alex Mattison, who was out with an ankle injury. Not to mention that Jefferson had an overall strong return to action with seven receptions on 10 targets for 84 yards.

This was largely the offense that O’Connell was hoping for when he benched Josh Dobbs.

“Nick's out there for the second time this season, and there's a lot to work through,” the head coach said. “But as far as the yardage, we were able to generate a couple of big plays to help us score. I thought Nick Mullens played well enough to give us a chance to go to overtime on the road and win a game as a team. We just didn't do enough in the end.”

Anyway, back to the defensive side. No doubt the beloved butt shove gave the Bengals their final chance at they took advantage in overtime but the Vikings wouldn’t have been in overtime if not for receiver Tee Higgins putting together a Randy Moss Tribute Catch for a 21-yard touchdown with 39 seconds remaining. Higgins went up over Akayleb Evans, snatched a fluttering pass from Browning out of the air and then swung it across the goal line.

Sometimes you gotta tip your cap. We also have to acknowledge that asking the defense to never have bad moments is tough, even if the other team is playing a Case Keenum look-a-like.

The defense was much more responsible for the game coming apart. That doesn’t diminish what Flores has done this year but the Bengals posted more yards than the Vikings have given up since Week 3 and allowed 7-for-14 on third or fourth down.

All said and done, the Vikings outplayed the Bengals for the majority of the game. They produced their third highest yardage total on offense, took the ball away from Browning once and sacked him five times. If you simulate that game 1,000 times, the Vikings win 999. But a handful of huge impact moments that swung the win probabilities over to Cincinnati’s side ended up being too much to overcome for a Vikings team that has been forced to battle uphill for the entire second half of the season.

That’s the micro view on the game. The macro view is that the Vikings’ chances to chase down the Detroit Lions are basically at zero after Detroit beat Denver on Saturday night. The Lions offense also looked spectacular, which may not bode well for a Vikings defense that has shouldered the load for months. They will have two games against the Lions with the Packers stuffed in between and the Vikings desperately need two out of three in order to make the playoffs.

If the Vikings make the postseason, it’s hard to argue against it being impressive. If they don’t, do we still shrug even if there were games without Kirk Cousins that should have been won like against Chicago, Denver or Cincinnati? Should we still be harsh in criticizing the current regime because the goal was to make the postseason? Should we look at 2023 as the season that everything went wrong in comparison to 2022 where all the one-score games went their way? Or the season where they set up for the future but weren’t there yet?

Another interesting angle to this game is that it’s about the first time where the Vikings are going to get lambasted by the national media under O’Connell. They were the center of trade rumors earlier but you can bet KOC will be an A1 topic with his skinny push. How will the Vikings handle being the subject of ridicule, as they often were during the Cousins-Zimmer era?

We’re going to find out because they play the best team in the division next week with zero room for error — not four or five inches.