The Vikings outgained the Broncos by nearly 100 yards, rushed for a season-high 175, and held the lead for almost 45 minutes of game time Sunday night at Denver.
But four total fumbles – two lost – and a fourth-quarter interception was too much for the Vikings to overcome. Denver scored its lone touchdown with 63 seconds to play, and Minnesota turned the ball over on downs at their 36-yard line to essentially end the game.
One kneel-down later by quarterback Russell Wilson sealed a 21-20 decision, snapping Minnesota's five-game winning streak.
"It's a winning and losing stat in this league," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "No matter what you do. Every other play in the game you're just setting yourself behind and having to overcome even if you do have the lead. … You're missing out on opportunities, you're missing out on more time of possession, you're missing out on chances for three [points], even if you don't finish in the red zone with touchdowns."
View game action photos from he Vikings vs. Broncos Week 11 at Empower Field at Mile High.
Turnovers clouded a well-executed game plan rooted in what was stressed all week: playing complementary football. All three phases (offense, defense, and special teams) helped Minnesota gain a 10-minute time of possession advantage and hold the Broncos offense to 2-for-12 on third downs.
Minnesota (6-5) even executed a fake punt when Ty Chandler took a direct snap on fourth-and-4 and gained 31 yards. But the Vikings lost the turnover battle 3-0, offsetting their effective defensive and special teams performances.
The Broncos scored nine points off the Vikings three turnovers. However, Wilson's go-ahead touchdown pass to Sutton swung the game. Dobbs and the offense gained just 11 yards on eight plays before throwing incomplete on fourth down from their own 36.
Though the Vikings dominated the ball, Dobbs faced consistent pressure all night. On the final drive, Denver blitzed Dobbs while keeping him inside the pocket. Despite only needing a field goal to win, Dobbs threw five incompletions, was sacked once and was flagged for intentional grounding on Minnesota's last series.
"On that third down, you've got to give ourselves a chance. So if they cover it up, then get rid of the ball earlier, so that we have a fighting chance on fourth down. It's hard to convert fourth-and-18," Dobbs said. "When you're living like that, with the game on the line, man, it's tough."
Running backs Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler combined for more yards (154) than a Vikings duo had in any game all season. O'Connell said Mattison ran hard, several times punishing Denver defenders. But his third-quarter fumble at the Broncos 34-yard-line likely cost Minnesota at least three points.
The Vikings started the game, turning it over. On the game's first series, Dobbs fumbled on third-and-1 after Denver stopped a gadget play. Tight end T.J. Hockenson took a snap and pitched it left to Dobbs, who was lined up behind him. Dobbs couldn't win a foot race to the edge. After Baron Browning made an initial tug of the football, Kareem Jackson led with the crown of his helmet and hit Dobbs high.
The ball popped out and floated right to Ja'Quan McMillian at the Minnesota 30. There were no flags on the play.
Denver netted their first points six plays later via a 31-yard Wil Lutz field goal, his first of five made field goals. The scoring drive took six plays and gained 17 yards.
"Josh Dobbs provides an element to our offense that we want to use," O'Connell said. "Execution was not, as you know, what we would have liked in the play. And no matter what, we can't turn the football over."
The Vikings five turnovers on 11 opening drives this season lead the NFL. Minnesota has lost the turnover battle 13 to 2 in its five losses this year. And for the third time, the Vikings had a minus-3 turnover margin. They have lost those three games by a combined 10 points.
The Vikings are still in the playoff picture. Three of their final six games are on the road, but three are also against the Lions and the Packers.
Cleaning up the turnovers will take top priority. But there were many positives for a follow-up to Dobbs's second start in purple. Minnesota established an effective ground game versus Denver.
On the team's third series, Chandler established a rhythm. He had three straight carries that gained 20 total yards. Chandler's production set up Dobbs' first score, a 3-yard pass to tight end Josh Oliver. Dobbs escaped a rushing Jonathon Cooper on the right sideline, broke his diving tackle attempt, reset, drew defenders closer and hit a wide-open Oliver.
Minnesota controlled the game on the ground in the first half. The Vikings 85 first-half rushing yards was a season-high. Minnesota gained 72 of those yards in the first quarter. Chandler's career night featured a 31-yard rush on the fake punt. He also turned a routine checkdown into a 19-yard gain on a third-and-20 on the same drive.
That series ended with Greg Joseph's 30-yard field goal with 3:20 to play.
Dobbs, the "Passtronaut," continues to prove his dual-threat capabilities. His third-quarter rushing touchdown put the Vikings up eight on his first series of the second half.
The scoring drive lasted nine plays, gained 69 yards, and was capped by his 10-yardrush. Dobbs' score marked the fifth consecutive game with a rushing touchdown. He has at least one passing and rushing touchdown in the past four games, which is the longest active streak in the league.
According to Next Gen Stats, Dobbs' rushing touchdown gained 5 more yards than expected and had a 9.1% touchdown probability.
The game changed on the Vikings next possession when Mattison fumbled. The Vikings were driving late in the third quarter after a 29-yard completion from Dobbs to Oliver. But Mattison fumbled four plays later. Denver recovered at its own 34-yard line and added a field goal, which cut the Vikings lead to five.
But sometimes football is as simple as the turnover battle. Though the Vikings defense held the Broncos to just 20 points, they failed to generate a turnover for the first time since Week 5.
And though the Vikings had chances to win, once again turnovers were the difference.
"We've got to find a way to get back to doing what we've been doing as of late which was winning that battle, turning the football over, capitalizing on it if it gets thrown to us," O'Connell said. "All the things that we're emphasizing and talking about, you know, we've got to make sure we understand. We've had some momentum as a football team, but we learned again tonight some lessons that we've talked a lot about throughout the season."