GREEN BAY, Wisc. – Simply put, nothing went right for Minnesota's offense Sunday.
The Vikings visited the Packers to kick off the 2023 calendar, but they couldn't find a rhythm all afternoon, falling 41-17 to their division rival.
The unit reached a hurdle early on when it was unable to get into the end zone on three tries from the Green Bay 1. Josh Metellus had blocked the Packers first punt, setting up Minnesota for first-and-goal and an expected touchdown.
After an incomplete pass from Kirk Cousins to Adam Thielen, Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell opted for back-to-back runs by Dalvin Cook, who both times was stuffed short of the goal line.
"We talk a lot about momentum. We talk a lot about how important it is in this league, in the NFL, to gain momentum – and when it is going away from you, to stop it immediately. We didn't do that tonight," Thielen said postgame. "When you get those big plays, you get the ball on the 1-yard line, those are game-changing moments that can really springboard you forward, and we didn't do that tonight."
The failure to capitalize worsened when Green Bay returned the kickoff that followed the field goal 105 yards for a touchdown.
"Some of the plays that were there to be made, we didn't make, and clearly we could do a better job of coaching," O'Connell said. "It starts with me giving our guys a chance to try to sustain momentum. You can't come up here and turn the ball over directly leading to points and give up a 100-yard kick return.
"Even when we did get some defensive stops and that blocked punt early on, we weren't able to do enough with those opportunities without sabotaging some of those drives offensively," O'Connell said, "so we've got to find a way to improve and get back to what we've been when we've been able to win some football games by not turning the football over, play clean and give ourselves a chance to win. We did not do that today.
"We've got to find a way to figure out why what I thought was a good week of preparation did not translate to our performance today as we continue to move forward here," he added.
Overall, the aerial game struggled.
Cousins threw three interceptions, two of which were tipped and became free-for-alls. He finished the game 18-of-31 passing for 205 yards with one touchdown. His passer rating was 49.2, and he also lost a fumble on a sack by Kenny Clark.
Cousins broke down the interceptions:
"The first one, I was trying to be aggressive there on the fourth down to T.J. [Hockenson]. Obviously tight coverage. You're watching and see on film that Justin [Jefferson] is kind of my next progression, and he ends up coming open, but I just felt a void where I saw T.J. going and felt I wanted to work that voided area," he explained. "Then, obviously, the deflection, it lands in their arms and they return it for a touchdown.
"It just kind of snowballed. The last one, the backside safety, I saw quarters coverage and the backside safety come down, so I wanted to replace him with a post throw, but the backside safety is coming, so they did a good job of kind of bringing that backside safety all game long to prevent you from throwing those posts," Cousins continued. "I needed to be aware of that and progress down to [Alexander Mattison]. The one, the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and went up in the air. When that happens, it's anybody's game at that point, just like the first one, so those happen, and it was tough that they happened when they did and how they did, and obviously the return for touchdown."
View game action photos from the Vikings Week 17 game vs. the Packers at Lambeau Field.
When the game got out of hand, the Vikings subbed in backup QB Nick Mullens, was 4-of-4 passing for 57 yards and a touchdown to K.J. Osborn.
Rookie Jalen Nailor led the team in receiving yards with 89, including a late-game, 47-yard touchdown that marked the first of his career. Hockenson and Osborn had 59 receiving yards apiece, and Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen had 17 and 16 yards, respectively.
Jefferson had one catch for 15 yards.
"They're not gonna let me get over a hundred yards every single game. They're going to do everything in their power to not let me get to those types of numbers," said Jefferson, who racked up 184 receiving yards against Green Bay in Week 1. "And it's tough to do that twice against the same team. To get a hundred-plus yards on the same team is definitely difficult.
"But it's definitely tough, getting one catch in the game," Jefferson added. "I wanted to make big plays for us, and not being able to do that, I'll be hard on myself."
Asked if he lobbied to get more balls thrown his way, Jefferson said it's not necessarily that cut-and-dried.
"I mean, I might be open, but something might happen up front or something that makes me not get the ball. I've got to look at the film to really see what it is," Jefferson said. "They just played a lot of high coverage. They had the safety on my side the majority of the game, they did a lot of 2-man. They did a good job."
Hockenson emphasized the offense's unhappiness with its performance.
"That's obviously not who we are, and it's not who we want to be. We've got to get that rolling [again]," he said. "The turnovers, as a receiver in this league, you don't want that – especially when it's thrown to you. So we've got to do a better job, that if we're not able to get it, just to knock it down and move on. Go to the next play."
Hockenson was among multiple Vikings who slipped during the game on Green Bay's playing surface. He mentioned the challenge but also pointed out that it can't be used as an excuse for poor play.
"It was one of those things where we tested our cleats pregame, and I think once everybody got out there it just got a little more muddy and a little more divots," Hockenson said. "I think everybody in here was confident in what they were wearing pregame, [but] as the game went on, it got a little worse. I think a few guys switched and tried to figure it out."
Ezra Cleveland noted that he wore 7-stud cleats in preparation for the surface but still struggled. The left guard slipped and fell on a first-quarter pick-six by Darnell Savage, a play in which right tackle Brian O'Neill suffered a calf injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the game.
"It was a little bit slicker than we're used to. But that's no excuse," Cleveland said.
O'Connell said O'Neill and center Austin Schlottmann, who suffered an injury early in the game, will undergo MRIs on Monday but also said Schlottmann suffered a fractured fibula.
When Schlottman – who had been replacing Garrett Bradbury (back injury) – left the game, he was replaced by Chris Reed.
"The center's big. 'Creed' came in and did a great job, but we don't have the chemistry that Garrett and Schlottmann and I have," Cleveland acknowledged. "So there were a few penalties in there that I need to clean up – that's on me – but he came in and did a great job. Identification and everything was [on] point, and I just need to do better, and we need to be better as a unit."
O'Connell noted some snap count issues early but said Reed "settled in" and Cousins helped with communication.
Cousins echoed that "it was tough" to change centers on the fly and also lose O'Neill, who was replaced by Olisaemeka Udoh.
"We'll get some good work with Chris Reed this week at center to just get some things ironed out. I thought Oli did a phenomenal job. I thought Chris did a phenomenal job, you know, getting thrown in there, and I have a lot of confidence in those guys to handle that sudden change," Cousins said. "We just need to get more work together in practice with depth so that when there is that sudden change, it's just go, so obviously we're all ready, making that transition from Garrett to Schlott' and making it with Chris and getting to where it's seamless."
While it's worth noting that sacks can't always be attributed entirely to the offensive line, Cousins was sacked twice, the second time also having the ball taken away by Kenny Clark.
The run game also struggled to find holes up front.
Mattison led Minnesota in rushing with eight carries for 38 yards, followed by Cousins' 37 yards on three scrambles. Cook had just 27 yards on nine carries.
The Vikings loss moved them to 12-4 with one game remaining in the regular season, another road contest next week at Chicago.
How the team handles this lopsided win will dictate what happens moving forward.
"Definitely some adversity that we're gonna have to find a way to use to overcome and get better from it," Thielen said. "There's two ways, usually, you can go from having some adversity, especially like we did tonight. There's two ways we can go, and we've got to make sure we make the right choice to use it for good and not go backward. Not the way we wanted to play tonight."
The Vikings also know they fell from the No. 2 to the No. 3 seed in the NFC Playoff picture, after the 49ers defeated the Raiders in overtime, with one week remaining in the regular season.
View pregame photos of Vikings players ahead of the Week 17 game vs the Packers at Lambeau Field.
It makes the loss even more disappointing, especially after the No. 1 Eagles were felled by the Saints earlier in the day.
"We knew how important this game was because of that, and with what happened with the Eagles. Again, these games are so important, every single one," Thielen said. "You look back after the season's over and you look back at this game, that game and the other game, and you realize how important every single game is. When you know that and you have experience, you treat your week of preparation a little different. I thought we had a good week of preparation; we just didn't execute."