EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) The Minnesota Vikings put themselves in position to pull off what would have been a remarkable victory, with all sorts of issues stacked against them at Arizona.
In the end, they simply dropped the ball.
''We played with the heart and the desire and the fight and all of those things that I want,'' coach Mike Zimmer said, ''but we turned the ball over three times.''
With three fumbles lost in Cardinals territory factoring heavily into the outcome, the Vikings (8-5) fell back into second place in the NFC North after their second loss in five days. Also playing into the 23-20 defeat on Thursday were two glaring mistakes on defense: a dropped interception by Xavier Rhodes in the third quarter with open field in front of him, and an interception by Trae Waynes on Arizona's drive for the go-ahead field goal that was negated by an offside penalty.
''It's not good enough, clearly, but I think it's a step back to where we want to be,'' linebacker Chad Greenway said. ''Now can we remain consistent and be that team for three more weeks? That's what we have to prove.''
The Vikings get nine days off before hosting Chicago on Dec. 20.
The loss to the Cardinals looked uncannily similar to one at Denver on Oct. 4. The final scores were the same, for one. Just like against the Broncos, the Vikings turned a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit into a tie, allowed the go-ahead field goal after the two-minute warning, and had the ball with a realistic chance to force overtime only to be foiled by a sack and strip of Teddy Bridgewater.
They were well within field goal range against the Cardinals, but Bridgewater's drop back on third down looking for a receiver running toward the right sideline was ruined when Dwight Freeney powered past left tackle Matt Kalil. Freeney knocked the ball out of Bridgewater's arm as he took him down. Zimmer said Friday he considered kicking with 13 seconds left but pointed out he would've been second-guessed about not trying to move further if it was missed. Though he chose his words carefully, Zimmer also indicated he disagreed with offensive coordinator Norv Turner's play call.
''They had more people rushing in that particular play than normally when that happens, so that was a little bit different, and then we got beat. In retrospect, probably could have called something else or we could have kicked the field goal or whatever,'' Zimmer said.
The other two fumbles were less complicated:
-Early in the third quarter, on second-and-5 at the Arizona 35, Turner called a reverse. The Cardinals were all over the play in the backfield, and Adrian Peterson still tried to toss the ball to Mike Wallace as Josh Mauro swarmed him.
''I really hold myself accountable. It was just a bad decision by me to try to pitch it. I should have held onto it and taken the loss,'' Peterson said.
The Vikings responded to the defeat at Denver with five straight wins, and they emerged from the trip to Arizona with a similar expression of confidence despite the exasperating defeat. Some reasons:
-Peterson's blitz pickups, a frequent weakness, were good. He stonewalled a pass rusher on several big plays, including three times on the last drive.
-Bridgewater passed for a career-high 335 yards and was at his best when it counted, using a mix of screen plays and underneath routes to beat the blitz-driven defense.
''I think we took a big step as a unit,'' Bridgewater said. ''We showed we're capable of doing some great things. Whenever we're clicking on all cylinders we're a tough team to stop.''
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL