First-and-goal from the 2.
That’s what the Vikings were looking at five plays after their only takeaway of the game seemed to settle the initial gut punch of falling behind 10-0 to one of the league’s three winless teams.
And yet the Vikings still turned the ball over on downs.
Against an Atlanta Falcons team that was 0-5. That had just fired its general manager and its head coach. That couldn’t practice last Thursday because of a COVID-19 scare and had to travel to U.S. Bank Stadium two days later.
“That was huge for momentum shift, obviously,” receiver Adam Thielen said after Sunday’s 40-23 loss. “Especially against a team like that. You have to punch those in. … We have to figure out a way to outwill them and punch it in.”
Sorry, Adam. It’s too late.
It’s time to quit talking about what this 1-5 team coulda, shoulda, woulda done or might do. Coach Mike Zimmer’s mentor, Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, once famously said, “You are what your record says you are.”
And right now, if you go to nfl.com and click on conference standings, you will see the Vikings checking in among the worst of 16 teams in the NFC.
That, for many reasons, is what they are.
There was no greater illustration of that than the fact they couldn’t get 2 measly yards in four tries from inside the 4-yard line early in the second quarter.
Yes, it makes no sense coming a week after how well the Vikings played in almost upsetting the top team in the NFC, Seattle, on the road.
“It’s strange,” Zimmer said.
“Strange is a good word,” confirmed Kirk Cousins, who tossed three more interceptions that led to 17 points.
The Falcons led 10-0 when running back Brian Hill gained 8 yards to the Vikings 21-yard line. But that’s when rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney punched the ball out from behind with his right fist.
“Gladney did a good job sprinting to the ball and punching it out,” safety Anthony Harris said.
Linebacker Eric Wilson returned the fumble 3 yards. Disaster averted.
But then came first-and-goal at the 2.
On the first play, Alexander Mattison, starting in place of injured face-of-the-franchise Dalvin Cook, was dropped for a 1-yard loss.
On the second play, Mattison bulled behind rookie right guard Ezra Cleveland — making his NFL starting debut — for 2 yards.
On third down, Cousins threw a quick slant to tight end Irv Smith at the goal line. But linebacker Deion Jones broke it up.
“I felt there was an opportunity there to Irv,” Cousins said. “Even though I’m hot [under pressure] there, I would like to be able to get that ball to Irv where he could score.”
The next play was strange for a number of reasons.
For starters, 206-pound third-string running back Mike Boone was in the backfield instead of the 220-pound Mattison.
“We had a different personnel group called,” Zimmer said. “And that was the play we worked on [during the week] on fourth down.”
The Vikings went up-tempo, hurrying to the line of scrimmage.
“You want to have a tempo to you and hopefully catch the defense somewhat unsettled and use the timing to your advantage,” Cousins said.
It didn’t work. If anything, the rush threw off the Vikings’ execution of the play.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph was lined up behind right tackle Brian O’Neill. With the left side of the line blocking down, Rudolph was supposed to block right end Steven Means.
Means pinched down and Rudolph missed a difficult block to execute. Means hit Boone in the backfield and he was then swarmed by two more defenders.
An already lifeless, fan-free stadium became even more deflated.
As Zimmer pointed out, the Falcons ended up punting on their next possession. And, yes, when Boone was stuffed, the game still had 42 minutes to go.
But if you want to know when this season bottomed out, it was on that series.
The Vikings head into their bye as what their record says they are — the 16th-best team in a 16-team conference.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.