The Vikings came into Arizona looking for the signature win they haven't been able to notch so far this season. They couldn't get it, falling just short as the Cardinals walked away with a 23–20 win and a playoff berth.
The Vikings have been looking for a statement win all season, the kind of win that would tell the NFL that they're not the beneficiaries of an easy schedule. It certainly didn't happen last Sunday, when they suffered the third-worst home loss in franchise history and were smacked in the mouth by the Seahawks. In that 38–7 loss, Minnesota gained just 125 total yards, and they then had to travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals, who had won six straight games and stood at 10–2. The Vikings were without their best defensive tackle (Linval Joseph), best pass-rusher (Anthony Barr) and best safety (Harrison Smith), and Adrian Peterson questioned Norv Turner's playcalling after the Seattle game.
Nearly everyone expected an Arizona rout on Thursday night in the Valley of the Sun, and nearly everyone was wrong. Mike Zimmer's team fought valiantly, but fell short to the Cards, 23–20, as Arizona pass rusher Dwight Freeney strip-sacked Teddy Bridgewater at the Cardinals 38-yard line with 13 seconds left. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell fell on the ball, and after one Carson Palmer kneeldown, it was all over.
“We were trying to throw the ball to the sideline,” Zimmer said to reporters afterward. “We told [Bridgewater], ‘You can't complete the ball in bounds,’ because with 12 or 13 seconds left, that's right at the time where you can spike the ball and get the clock stopped. You can't complete the ball in bounds, and you can't take a sack.”
The idea was to get the ball closer and make an easier field goal attempt for Blair Walsh, but the ending was not the one Zimmer hoped for.
With the win, the Cards guaranteed themselves a postseason berth, and if Seattle loses to Baltimore on Sunday, Arizona will wrap up the NFC West. If Seattle wins on Sunday, the Vikings would move from the fifth-seed to the sixth in the NFC playoff picture. The loss hurt the Vikings as much as it helped the Cards.
“That was a hard-fought battle—pretty much like a playoff game,” Campbell told Tracy Wolfson of the NFL Network. “They needed a win, we needed a win, and coming up with that big play was huge. Everything we worked for since the beginning of the year, it was just, give yourself a chance to get in the dance.”
Bridgewater, who had thrown for less than 200 yards in seven games this season, finished with a season-high 335 yards against Arizona's estimable defense. He was helped by a game plan that had him rolling to his right to get away from the Arizona pass rush, and to mitigate the potential damage caused by Minnesota's leaky pass protection. It worked like a charm in the first half, when Bridgewater threw for one more yard than Carson Palmer, 163 to Palmer's 161. And when he was directed to stay in the pocket, Bridgewater for the most part was smart enough to know when to get rid of the ball—he was far more prone to simply throw the ball away than he was to risk an interception. But Freeney absolutely destroyed left tackle Matt Kalil, and the play took far too long. It would have been easy enough for the Vikings to try a field goal on that third-down play, but no go, and no chance for a tie or win at that point.
Palmer, who finished his day with 25 completions in 35 attempts for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (though he had a couple of near-picks), was at times flummoxed by the Vikings' expert combination of blitz pressure and man coverage. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, long known as one of the best defensive minds in the league, did a brilliant job in a short week to make up for his personnel losses against one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Palmer broke Kurt Warner's franchise season record for touchdown passes with his 31st, but it wasn't easy.
"It was a weird game, man—it was an off game," Palmer said after. “But good teams pull those out, and we did that. It's been a physical month for us. We had Cincy, we had Seattle, we had two division games with St. Louis and San Fran, and then coming here tonight and playing on a short week. We're a tired team right now. It's been a grind, but we have the right leadership in the locker room and the right coaches to keep us going.”
As for the Vikings, who now stand at 8–5 and are looking up at the Packers in the NFC North standings, there is going to be a lot of “what might have been?” The Vikings came back from a 20–10 deficit and tied it with 4:55 left in the game on a seven-yard Bridgewater pass to Mike Wallace. Zimmer's team was game enough, especially in their undermanned defense—they vexed Palmer all night and forced the Cardinals to fight for every yard and point. But the Vikings lost three fumbles in Arizona territory. That, plus a couple of blown coverages, like Captain Munnerlyn's whiff on a 65-yard touchdown pass to John Brown in the first quarter, and a two-man coverage faceplant on Palmer's third-quarter touchdown to Michael Floyd,made the difference.
With a 1–4 record against winning teams, and a 7–1 mark against all others, Minnesota is still looking for that signature win. The Cardinals put an uncertain signature on this one, but as long as they're the ones using the pen again, they'll take it.