FOXBOROUGH, MASS. – Adam Thielen screamed at Bill Belichick on the sideline. Stefon Diggs sat on the floor in full uniform by the locker room door, frowning like an overwrought actor, half an hour after the loss, texting furiously. Minutes before, he had cursed at someone, loudly, in the otherwise quiet room.
Mike Zimmer, asked if his team ran the ball enough, answered, tersely, “No.” Kirk Cousins, having produced 10 points against a statistically mediocre defense, agreed that the offense might want to play at a faster pace.
Losing a game at New England in December is a proven mathematical probability, yet the Vikings reacted to their 24-10 defeat against perhaps the greatest coach and quarterback ever as if their internal flaws mattered more than the difficulty of their task. On a day when the rest of the NFC North lost and the Vikings’ primary rival fired its longtime head coach, they stewed in their own frustration rather than celebrating others’.
“We just can’t beat ourselves,” running back Latavius Murray said.
The Vikings under Zimmer are 2-9 on the road against playoff teams. If the Bears and Patriots make the playoffs this season — virtual certainties — the record will be 2-11. Next Monday, the Vikings will play another likely playoff team on the road, in Seattle. Because the Vikings currently are out of the playoff picture, a loss there would be both customary and devastating.
The Vikings are 6-5-1 a year after they finished 13-3 and spent $84 million on a franchise quarterback. They entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations, yet with four games remaining, they know they will need to surge just to squeeze into the playoffs. “Then you get a fresh start,” Cousins said.
The Vikings seem to need one. Sunday, Belichick played cat-and-mouse with them. Turns out he’s still the league’s alpha predator.
Knowing the Vikings’ offensive strength is Cousins making big plays to Thielen and Diggs, he limited them to a combined 10 catches for 77 yards.
Knowing the Vikings’ defensive strength is their pass rush, he and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ensured Brady always had an easy outlet. The result: zero sacks on 32 pass attempts and receptions by nine different receivers.
Knowing there is always room for a sense of humor when your coaching reputation is golden, Belichick worked former failed Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into the passing game. Patterson caught both of his targets for 53 yards.
And one week after Cousins shredded the Packers defense, Belichick deked him into making throws that made no sense.
New England had just taken a 24-10 lead with 10:57 remaining. The Vikings took the ball on their 29. Nine plays later, they faced second-and-20 from their 43.
The Vikings wanted to get the ball to Thielen and Diggs. So Belichick’s defense lined up in “Cover Zero,” meaning the safeties were not playing deep but were bunched near the line of scrimmage.
Cousins knew he would be facing a blitz or an unpredictable rush and that he’d have to release the ball quickly.
The first past went to Thielen for 4 yards. On third-and-16, needing two touchdowns to tie, Cousins threw to Thielen for 5.
On fourth-and-11, needing a big play, Cousins threw short to Laquon Treadwell for 4.
Cousins explained that he had to throw quickly and hope his receivers could break tackles, but Treadwell is not a dangerous runner. Belichick had told the Vikings what he wanted them to do, and they did it.
“I feel fine about my team,” Zimmer said.
Why? The Vikings haven’t won a game this season against a team that currently has a winning record.
Mike McCarthy’s firing means Zimmer is the only head coach in the division who was employed by his team last year. If he wins at Seattle, he will have a chance to win the division again, or at least make the playoffs.
If he loses another road game against another playoff team, the Wilfs will have reason to re-evaluate their general manager and head coach, and wonder about their offensive coordinator and quarterback.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org