MINNEAPOLIS – The Vikings offense was almost incomprehensibly bad in Monday night's loss to the Packers.
You've probably seen some of the statistics by now: 139 total yards. 2.6 yards per play, third-worst in the entire NFL this season. Seven first downs. Eight punts. The offense crossing midfield on its own exactly once.
It was, in fact, historically bad. This was just the second time in post-merger franchise history that the Vikings ran more than 50 offensive plays and recorded fewer than 140 total yards. (Somehow, they won the previous time – against the Giants in 2005 – thanks to three defense/special teams touchdowns).
And yet, for all the numbers and historical context of an atrocious performance, the game may have looked a whole lot different if a mere handful of plays had different outcomes. The Vikings defense handed their offense opportunity after opportunity in the first half by turning the Packers over three times, but the Vikings failed to take advantage.
Let's run through a few of those missed opportunities that could've changed the game.
13:18 1st Quarter, 0-0 game, 3rd and Goal from Packers' 5-yard line
Kirk Cousins and the offense were handed a golden ticket right out of the gates. On the third play from scrimmage, Anthony Barr forced a fumble that Eric Kendricks recovered and took back to the Packers' 10. It's hard not to think about how the game may have played out if the Vikings punched it in for seven in that spot.
A Mike Boone pitch to the left cut the distance in half on first down. Instead of running again on second down, Kevin Stefanski dialed up play-action. But no one was open immediately and the pocket was blown up by Za'Darius Smith for the first time of many on the evening. Cousins threw it away.
On third down is where the missed opportunity happened. Cousins had fullback CJ Ham open towards the left sideline, but waited a half-second too long to throw it and then sailed the throw anyways. A quick throw to Ham's numbers and he probably dives past the pylon for a touchdown.
"We didn't get enough points off the turnovers that we had," said a reticent Mike Zimmer after the game.
6:16 1st Quarter, 3-0 Vikings lead, 3rd and 5 from their own 27-yard line
After setting for the rare three-and-out field goal, the Vikings offense got the ball back deep in its own territory for its second possession. Cousins made a nice play on the drive's first third down, stepping up in the pocket and finding Stefon Diggs to move the chains.
Two plays later, it was third down again. This time, Cousins took a shot. It has almost seemed at times like Cousins can be more accurate on deep passes than short ones, and this throw showed why. He lofted a perfect ball up the right sideline to Adam Thielen, who went to the ground to catch it through some contact from Packers cornerback Kevin King.
It was the type of play we've seen Thielen make time and time again over the past several seasons, but he couldn't secure it. Thielen's pleas for pass interference went unanswered - the call on the field appeared to be correct - and the Vikings punted.
There's no guarantee the Vikings do anything with that possession even if Thielen secures the catch, but they would've been just 15 yards or so from field goal range. Who knows what happens?
2:49 2nd Quarter, 10-6 Vikings lead, 3rd and 4 from Packers' 42-yard line
The Vikings capitalized in full on their second takeaway of the first half, with Cousins and Diggs hooking up for an impressive touchdown after an Anthony Harris interception. Then they got a third chance when Harrison Smith forced a fumble and Kendricks recovered it in Packers territory.
Two short runs by Boone set up a third and manageable. Zimmer was planning to go for it on fourth down if needed, so he approved of Stefanski taking a shot and getting creative. The Vikings ran a variant of the Philly Special, a play made famous in U.S. Bank Stadium in the 2017 Super Bowl and one the Vikings had been practicing for weeks. Cousins handed the ball to Boone, who pitched it back to Diggs, who ran to his right and lofted the ball towards Cousins, who was by himself in the right flat.
But Diggs put too much on the throw, and Cousins' diving attempt was futile. If Diggs delivers a simple pass to Cousins, he gets into field goal range easily, with plenty of time to try to score a touchdown.
"I thought it was a great call," Cousins said. "I was wide open. It's just a tough deal. Just missed it by a few inches."
“I missed the throw," Diggs admitted. "I’ve never said those words. I see how it feels now.”
Cousins' fourth-down throw missed Thielen by a wide margin, and after trading three-and-outs, the Packers took the ball down for a field goal that brought them to within a point at halftime.
7:27 3rd Quarter, 10-9 Vikings lead, 1st and 10 from Packers' 46-yard line
The Vikings showed some brief signs of life on their second possession after halftime. A 28-yard catch by Diggs on 3rd-and-18 was their longest play of the game, and Ameer Abdullah followed it with two productive runs to pick up another first down and cross midfield.
Then Cousins took an ill-advised deep shot and the momentum was gone as soon as it had appeared. Perhaps antsy to try to make a big play happen off of play-action, Cousins launched one deep for Diggs but into double-coverage. King made a fairly simple play for the interception.
"Just trying to bring [Diggs] across the field and the backside corner sank, and so he made the play," Cousins said. "Probably shouldn't have brought him across the field. Either take him vertically or progress on."
If Cousins doesn't throw away that rare promising possession, maybe the Vikings go get some points and don't get shut out in the second half. Probably not, but again, you never know how things could've played out.
4:16 4th Quarter, 23-10 Packers lead, 2nd and 14 from their own 47-yard line
After two Aaron Jones touchdowns against a Kendricks-less defense put the Packers up by 13 and sent fans towards the exits, Cousins momentarily gave the Vikings life again by finding Bisi Johnson for a 53-yard touchdown. The crowd erupted as the stadium's fireworks went off, only for the referee to quickly announce a holding call on Riley Reiff that negated the play.
It was that kind of night.
"I feel like there were a variety of outcomes on different drives that started to add up," Cousins said. "It prevented us from being able to string something together. But certainly that was one of a long list."