The Vikings worked their way back from a terrible start to the season to enter December with a .500 record and opportunity against a Buccaneers squad that was a game ahead in the NFC Standings.
It was definitely the time to do something big, but malfunctions at the most inopportune moments sunk Minnesota's changes at Tampa Bay in a 26-14 loss Sunday.
Minnesota fell to 6-7 on the season with three games to play.
The Vikings are on the outside looking in at the playoff field and will host the Bears (6-7) next Sunday in Week 15.
Pre-game question: Could the Vikings continue their momentum of winning five of the past six games and gain the upper hand on the Buccaneers (8-5) for potential tiebreaker purposes?
Minnesota started about as well as it could from the perspective of moving the ball.
The ground game was making nice gains, and the passing game included some intermediate gains.
But for all of the success that statistically exceeded what one might expect — Minnesota rushed for 71 yards on 14 carries (5.1 per play) in the first quarter against a defense that entered the game as the stingiest (74.2 per game and 3.28 per play) — Kryptonite kept creeping out at the worst moments to thwart promising drives.
Minnesota's first possession ended with a punt from the Tampa Bay 40 after Cousins was sacked for a loss of 8 on third-and-4. What would have been a 49- or 50-yard attempt with just an incompletion led to a 28-yard punt opportunity.
The Vikings defense kept the Buccaneers scoreless on their first drive, too, and Minnesota followed with an impressive 84-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard run by Cook early in the second quarter. Dan Bailey's extra point, however, missed wide left.
A three-and-out by the Bucs gave the Vikings a solid opportunity on their third possession, a drive that began at their own 34. Minnesota advanced to the Tampa Bay 14-yard line but followed with an incompletion, a 3-yard run by Cook and a sack of Cousins for a 6-yard loss. Bailey's 36-yard field goal pushed wide right.
The Buccaneers seized momentum with a 20-yard pass and 48-yard touchdown throw by Tom Brady, taking a 7-6 lead with 7:41 left in the second quarter.
Minnesota appeared ready to answer, gaining 15 on a completion to Tyler Conklin, 14 on a run by Cook and 15 on a pass to Irv Smith, Jr., moving the ball to the Tampa Bay 31-yard line.
A run for no gain, an incompletion to Justin Jefferson, a timeout followed by a false start penalty and another incompletion to Jefferson prompted a 54-yard field goal try. Wide right again, and great starting field position for Tampa Bay. The Bucs again reached the end zone thanks to a lowering the helmet to initiate contact penalty against Harrison Smith and a pass interference call against Jeff Gladney that erased what would have been his first NFL interception.
The Vikings fifth possession of the game started with just 0:44 left, and Minnesota tried to be aggressive but suffered incompletions on first and third down and only consumed 23 seconds of clock, which left just enough time for the Bucs to receive an unwrapped gift in the form of a 46-yard pass interference penalty on a Hail Mary. The call — a unicorn of sorts in that situation — gave Tampa Bay a short field goal and 17-6 lead.
Tampa Bay opened the second half with a crisp touchdown drive, and Minnesota answered with a touchdown to make it 23-14, but that possession consumed 8:33 of the third quarter.
Even after earlier miscues, Minnesota had a shot at making it a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter.
Cousins scrambled for a gain of 10 and converted a third-and-2 with a draw that gained 12 yards to the Tampa Bay 8-yard line.
An incompletion, a sack by Antoine Winfield, Jr., on which the son of the Vikings Legend forced a fumble that Cousins recovered, and a sack by Shaquil Barrett created fourth-and-goal from the 28. Wide right again on a 46-yarder with 9:00 remaining.
"It was a little of both. They've got good rushers. I know one was a [Cover] 0 blitz, and then I think they had pressure on the one or two. It's third-and-20, and we're trying to get the ball down the field, too. Or whatever it was, something like that. So we're going to hold the ball a little bit longer than we normally do."
— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on the Bucs success with sacks to end drives
"I really had no choice. We got sacked twice, and it's fourth-and-. I would have went for it on fourth down again if it was reasonable."
— Zimmer on trying the 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter
"I thought we moved the ball well for much of the game and had strong drives, but it didn't turn into points a couple of times in the red zone. When we're in field goal range, a sack moves us out of field goal range. The endings to some of those drives were what upset us. Overall, it was a game we didn't win and didn't make enough plays. We've got to move on. Obviously the last three weeks become critical — as every week is — but we don't have a lot of room for error now."
"I remember on our first drive, I break the huddle on third down and see, 'Hey, if I take a sack here, we're going to be out of field-goal range. I can't take a sack.' And then … I took a sack. You think about your role in being able to give your team points. You go back now, and I'm going to watch that to see how I can ditch the ball or escape or just avoid the lost yardage that just make field goals so much more difficult, or force us to punt. I think that's something I could have done better today."
"Couple times. I'm hot about that, I'm mad about that. I just couldn't find my – it's different playing on this grass after playing on turf for three weeks and trying to cut the same way. It's different. Sometimes I was losing my feet. I was mad at myself. Left some runs out there, but just gotta go watch the film and get better from it."
— Cook on nearly breaking a big one