MINNEAPOLIS – The Vikings needed a first down to keep their chances alive, and they came up short.
This one will sting for a while, as Minnesota fell to the Giants 31-24 in Sunday's Wild Card game after failing to convert on a fourth-and-8.
The play occurred just inside the 2-minute warning. After a pass to K.J. Osborn on third-and-8 got broken up by Giants CB Cor'Dale Flott, the Vikings had one more shot. Kirk Cousins connected with T.J. Hockenson, but the tight end was tackled five yards short of the down marker.
Turnover on downs, three kneel-downs by Giants QB Daniel Jones, and the 2022 Vikings season came to a heartbreaking end.
Cousins noted that it was a shell read with a single-high safety, and he couldn't find a good path to Justin Jefferson so started his check-down.
"And then when I went to progress, I just felt like I was about to get sacked and felt like, 'I've got to put the ball in play. I can't go down with a sack,' so I just thought I'd kick it out to T.J." Cousins told media members postgame. "I had thrown short of the sticks a few occasions in the game, and even going back a few weeks, I just felt like throwing short of the sticks wouldn't be the end of the world.
"It was obviously tight coverage, so [he] didn't have a chance to pull away, but I was probably going to go down and take a sack if I didn't put it out there," Cousins added.
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell also lamented that final offensive play.
"On that fourth down, just trying to get some eligible [receivers] vertical, and the ball ended up going underneath like we had done multiple times to T.J. under the coverage for catch conversions; they just were able to make the play," O'Connell said. "But the intent was to continue having a chance to win the football game and push the ball down the field. It just didn't open up for Kirk, and that's on me."
Cousins said the missed opportunity on the previous play plagues him even more.
"Third-and-8 is the one I want back," he said. "I felt like, getting man coverage, the ball needed to be a little more out front of K.J. It was right on him in the sense that the DB was able to break it up, but if the ball's out front, the DB can't do that in man coverage."
O'Connell confirmed that the "primary concept" never intended for a catch five yards short – at least in that situation.
"If it's third down, and you can catch, convert and make it fourth-and-2-or-3, that's OK," he said. "Looking back on it, [the conversation] may have been just a little more, 'Hey, this is where you want the ball to go,' but I want Kirk to play. I want him to be free out there and make good decisions. He did all night long, moved our team, stood in there and was getting the ball out of his hands."
Cousins did play admirably all game long, finishing the day 31-of-39 passing for 273 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 112.9.
He most often targeted Hockenson, who led Minnesota with 10 catches for 129 yards. The tight end made clutch play after clutch play – but he just couldn't get away on that last reception.
"It's just a choice route, and I think there's an anchor on the front side. I just wish I could have made it, broke a tackle, and been able to run that," Hockenson said. "But yeah, it's a tough one. It's a tough look. The safety was down, kind of climbed. It was just a tough read, so I broke it out, and I just wasn't able to break his tackle and get the first [down].
"That's my goal in that situation, is to catch that ball, break a tackle and get the first down that we needed," he added. "And I wasn't able to do that."
Hockenson was one of three Minnesota tight ends to get their hands on the ball Sunday, joining Johnny Mundt (a 12-yard catch) and Irv Smith, Jr., who caught a 3-yard touchdown pass. Cousins worked to spread the ball around throughout the game, but New York's defense effectively contained some of the Vikings biggest offensive playmakers.
Adam Thielen recorded three catches for 50 yards, and Dalvin Cook had 60 yards rushing (15 carries) but netted 10 yards on six catches. Osborn had two catches for 20 yards, and Justin Jefferson totaled seven catches for 47 yards after recording five for 37 in the first quarter.
"They did what everybody does," Jefferson said of the Giants defenders. "There weren't any shockers."
In his first career playoff game, Jefferson said the team never lost hope. The Vikings went 11-0 in one-score games during the regular season, and they never felt the Wild Card contest was out of reach.
"It was the same energy we always have [if] it's late in the game and we're down by a score," he explained. "We still had that urge to go out there and do what we've been doing this whole year. We just came up short this time. So I guess you can say we're 11-1."
View game action photos from the Vikings-Giants Wild Card game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Jan. 15, 2023.
The "1" came at the worst time, though, as it wrapped up the season so much earlier than Jefferson and his teammates were ready for.
O'Connell said he would have liked to have more efficient dialogue with Cousins before that final play.
He knew Cousins just wanted to give someone a chance as he felt pressure from the defense.
"I've got to go back [and watch the film]. I was watching some of the routes down the field to kind of materialize, and the pocket may or may not have been collapsing on him," O'Connell said. "He just wanted to make sure he gave somebody a chance, and they made a play.
"Had some double coverage on Justin on that drive and trying to have K.J. come to life, trying to have Adam come to life. We'll take a long, hard look at it," O'Connell continued. "Our 2-minute offense has been pretty darn good all season helping us, and in the end, we didn't get it done on that drive. It did feel rather abrupt."