MINNEAPOLIS — Fourth-and-8 with less than two minutes remaining, Kirk Cousins threw a pass to T.J. Hockenson that gained 3 yards.
Hockenson was tackled, and all of the air left U.S. Bank Stadium.
The New York Giants were able to take three kneel-downs and enjoy a 31-24 victory.
It was the first time all season that Minnesota lost a one-score game, ending the first year under Head Coach Kevin O'Connell.
Minnesota had been 11-0 in one-score contests, including a 27-24 win over New York on Dec. 24, on the way to a 13-4 mark that had earned the Vikings the No. 3 seed.
The Giants had finished 9-7-1 with an 8-4-1 regular-season record in one-score games.
A Vikings squad that had won on the margins and executed multiple rallies for much of the season fell behind by seven, then 10 on two separate occasions before rallying to tie the game at 24 with 12:34 left in the game.
New York answered with a 12-play drive that included a fourth-and-1 conversion to advance the ball to the Minnesota 5. The possession included an illegal contact penalty on an incomplete pass and a holding penalty on an incomplete pass.
After a swap of possessions that ended with punts, Minnesota got the ball back at its 12 with 2:56 remaining.
The drive started with a 6-yard pass to Hockenson and was followed by a roughing the passer penalty against Dexter Lawrence, who hit Cousins' face mask before spinning him to the turf.
The Vikings followed with a 13-yard pass to Hockenson to move the ball to the Minnesota 46-yard line.
An incompletion to Adam Thielen was followed by a 2-yard pass to Dalvin Cook before the 2-minute warning.
A pass down the middle to K.J. Osborn on third-and-8 was broken up by Cor'Dale Flott before the pass shy of the sticks effectively ended Minnesota's season.
Cousins said he didn't like his initial read and felt like he was about to take a sack so he wanted get the ball out, citing times earlier in the game and season when Hockenson finished a pass caught shy of the first-down markers by getting the line to gain.
"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 said. "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."
O'Connell said he was watching the routes down the field and didn't get a good look at whether the pocket collapsed.
"The intent as a play caller, you're not going to call a primary concept where somebody is short of the sticks to gain, especially on fourth down," O'Connell said. "If it's third down, and you can catch, convert and make it a fourth-and-2-or-3, that's OK.
"Looking back on it, [a conversation with Cousins] may have just been a little bit 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," O'Connell added. "He did all night long, moved our team, stood in there and was getting the ball out of his hands. It just so happens that that down, we just didn't get enough on the play, regardless. In the end, I look at that as much of anything on me and that play call, even though we had eligible with a chance down the field. There's always a play that could be better for the guys out there."
Hockenson finished with 10 catches for 129 yards to lead Minnesota. Cousins went 31-of-39 passing for 273 yards with two scores and a passer rating of 112.9.
The game was the second playoff contest hosted by the Vikings since U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016.
The first was when the venue became forever connected to the Minneapolis Miracle, but five years and a day later, there was no such ending for the Vikings.
Here are four more observations presented by Minnesota Eye Consultants, the Proud LASIK Partner of the Minnesota Vikings, followed by a scoring summary:
1. Jefferson not targeted late
Notice anyone missing from the above paragraphs?
Justin Jefferson, who led the NFL in catches (128) and yards (1,809) was not targeted at any point in the fourth quarter.
Cousins attempted 12 passes during the period in which Minnesota rushed zero times and completed nine, but there were none thrown toward Jefferson.
The third-year receiver started his first playoff game hot with five catches for 37 yards on five targets in the first quarter.
He finished with seven catches on nine targets and totaled 10 receiving yards in the final three quarters.
2. Can't find a stop
Much will be made about the final play, and much will also be said about a Vikings defense that struggled to stack two positive plays throughout the night.
An incompletion or pass breakup would be followed by a gain on second-and-long or a play that opened up New York's playbook on third-and-short.
Saquon Barkley rushed nine times for 53 yards, highlighted by a 28-yard touchdown on his first official carry (the first run of the game was negated by penalty).
Barkley added 56 yards on five catches.
The Giants opened with touchdown drives of five plays and four plays for a 14-7 lead with 1:03 remaining in the first quarter.
New York's next possession lasted 20 plays, covered 85 yards and digested 10:52 of the second quarter.
3. Ill-fated trickery
The Vikings tried a bit of trickery early in the game, but it was ill-fated.
Facing a third-and-1 at their own 34, Minnesota called a throwback pass with Jefferson taking a lateral and running to his right.
He turned and threw it back to Cousins, who was tackled for a loss of 2, causing a quick three-and-punt and allowing New York to build momentum after its first touchdown drive.
That play followed what initially looked like a conversion of a second-and-3 with a pass to Alexander Mattison, but officials changed their initial marking of Mattison's progress.
"We thought we had converted. Officials marked it past the line to gain, and they ended up making it a third-and-1," O'Connell said. "We had that [trick] play up for a chance against man coverage to see if we could try to generate an explosive, and they ended up leaving the cornerback side [covered] — ultimately didn't get the look we were hunting, and that's part of taking risks, no different than a fake punt, no different from some things in that situation. The defended the play well, and you've got to give them credit. That's not a play call I particularly loved, but it's easy to say that when it does not work."
4. Scrambled legs
The Vikings struggled to contain Jones on scrambles and designed runs in the first half.
The quarterback rushed 10 times for 71 yards in the opening 30 minutes and didn't wait long to put his legs in motion. He finished with 17 rushes for 78 yards after the three kneel-downs.
Jones had scrambles of 7 and 15 on New York's first possession. His runs slowed down Minnesota's pass rush and helped keep New York ahead of the chains throughout the first half.
New York had scored two touchdowns before facing its first third down of the game and then converted its first four third downs of the game.
The Giants finished 7-for-13 on third downs (53.8 percent) and also converted both tries on fourth down.
The Vikings were just 4-for-10 on third downs and went 1-for-2 on fourth.
Q1, 8:23 remaining
Vikings 7, Giants 0
Kirk Cousins sneaks from less than a yard (Greg Joseph kicks PAT) [12 plays, 75 yards, 6:37 time of possession]
Balanced blend: The Vikings passed six times for 47 yards and rushed six times for 23 more (a 5-yard encroachment penalty on second-and-5 also awarded a fresh set of downs.
Q1, 5:11 remaining
Vikings 7, Giants 7
Saquon Barkley rushes for 28 yards (Graham Gano kicks PAT) [5 plays, 75 yards, 3:12 time of possession]
Chunk plays: New York overcame a holding penalty on its first snap by gaining 13 on a pass to Richie James and following with a 7-yard scramble by Daniel Jones. With the fresh set of downs, Jones found Darius Slayton for 22 before adding a 15-yard scramble that preceded Barkley's score.
Q1, 1:03 remaining
Giants 14, Vikings 7
Isaiah Hodgins catches a 14-yard pass from Daniel Jones (Gano kicks PAT) [4 plays, 81 yards, 2:03 time of possession]
Bang-bang play: The drive started with a 47-yard completion to Slayton during which Harrison Smith was knocked to the field during a collision with a Giants player.
Q2, 3:25 remaining
Giants 17, Vikings 7
Gano kicks a 25-yard field goal [20 plays, 85 yards, 10:52 time of possession]
4-for-5 on third downs: New York converted its first third down attempt of the game, picking up third-and-7 with a 9-yard completion. New York also added runs of 8 and 12 by Jones on two third-and-2s and picked up a third-and-4 with a 5 yard pass to the Minnesota 4-yard line before the Vikings forced consecutive incompletions from the 6.
Q2, 0:45 remaining
Giants 17, Vikings 14
K.J. Osborn catches a 9-yard pass from Cousins (Joseph kicks PAT) [8 plays, 75 yards, 2:40 time of possession]
Hock 2 it: The drive was extended by T.J. Hockenson's 27-yard reception on third-and-9 moments before he added a 28-yard catch on second-and-12. The grabs moved the ball from the Minnesota 26 to the New York 21 in a span of three plays.
Q3, 11:37 remaining
View game action photos from the Vikings-Giants Wild Card game at U.S. Bank Stadium on Jan. 15, 2023.
Giants 24, Vikings 14
Daniel Bellinger catches a 9-yard pass from Jones (Gano kicks PAT) [6 plays, 75 yards, 3:23 time of possession]
Letdown: The Vikings opened the second half with Dalvin Tomlinson's 3-yard tackle for loss on a run by Barkley. They followed it, however, by allowing a 10-yard pass on second-and-13 to set up a manageable third-and-3 on which Jones completed a short pass to Barkley that became a 24-yard completion. New York followed with a 32-yard completion ot Hodgins.
Q3, 7:46 remaining
Giants 24, Vikings 21
Irv Smith, Jr., catches a 3-yard pass from Cousins (Joseph kicks PAT) [8 plays, 75 yards, 3:51 time of possession]
Second-chance points: Smith bounced back from a drop on second-and-3 in the second quarter with a smooth catch on a tight pass from Cousins. The nifty throw-and-catch occurred four plays after New York nearly intercepted Cousins on a deflected pass down the field.
Q4, 12:34 remaining
Giants 24, Vikings 24
Joseph kicks a 38-yard field goal [12 plays, 56 yards, 6:38 time of possession]
View pregame photos of the Vikings ahead of the Wild Card matchup vs. the Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Going for it: The Vikings faced fourth-and-2 from the New York 43 and opted to send Hockenson down the right sideline. He found an opening in the defense for a gain of 18. The play before was just as critical: Osborn reeled in a contested catch for a gain of 11 to help Minnesota bounce back from a third-and-13. Minnesota was going to go for it again on fourth-and-inches, but a false start was called after a flinch by Christian Darrisaw just before the snap.
Q4, 7:47 remaining
Giants 31, Vikings 24
Barkley rushes for 2 yards (Gano kicks PAT) [12 plays, 75 yards, 4:47 time of possession]
Second-and-10 struggles: The Vikings defense allowed three completions on second-and-10 plays during the drive. Minnesota gave up a 14-yard pass to Slayton after an incompletion to start the drive. The Vikings later allowed a 19-yard completion along the sideline and a 10-yard pass to Barkley.