MINNEAPOLIS – It seemed the Vikings were poised for an exciting win; instead, they suffered a heartbreaking loss.
Minnesota fell 28-24 to the Chargers Sunday after a roller-coaster afternoon that included missed chances and bad bounces.
With 8:05 left in the game, the Vikings trailed by 4 and drove down the field. That series served almost as a microcosm of the day's entirety – featuring chunk plays and third-down conversions but also tackles for loss and incomplete passes. Kirk Cousins connected with rookie Jordan Addison for gains of 16 and 11 yards, as well as with Alexander Mattison for 6 and Justin Jefferson for 8. Ty Chandler logged a 9-yard run that kept the team moving, too.
But on four chances from inside the Chargers 3, Minnesota couldn't make anything happen.
Mattison took the handoff and gained 2, then lost 1 on the following play. Cousins threw back-to-back incomplete passes to prompt a turnover on downs.
They had another chance, though.
The Chargers failed to convert on third-and-11, and instead of punting, they opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 24-yard line. Joshua Kelley was stuffed at the line for no gain by Jonathan Bullard, and suddenly the Vikings had another shot.
With 1:47 on the clock, Minnesota had to get 24 yards to the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown.
After a deep incompletion intended for K.J. Osborn, Mattison was tackled for a loss of 1. Cousins' next pass missed Jefferson, who suffered cramps following the play and had to be helped off the field. The Vikings earned a first down off a Chargers penalty. From the Chargers 20, an incomplete pass on which T.J. Hockenson was shaken up (a 5-yard penalty resulted because the Vikings did not have a timeout) was followed by a 5-yard pass to Brandon Powell and a 5-yard pass to Hockenson. On fourth-and-5, Cousins found Hockenson for a 9-yard gain and the first down.
With the clock continuing to run, players scrambled to line up and get set, opting against spiking the ball for breathing room. Cousins threw to Hockenson with 12 seconds remaining in hopes of a touchdown. Instead, the ball bounced off the tight end's fingers and off safety JT Woods before it was intercepted by L.A.'s Kenneth Murray, Jr., to end the game.
"With the clock winding to where it was, I felt like … 'It's either ours for a touchdown to win the game or it's incomplete. I'm going to put it off away from his frame and to a safe spot,' " Cousins said postgame. "You don't expect the ball to bounce up twice in the air and get intercepted."
He and O'Connell also explained there initially was an issue with Cousins hearing the play call through the headset.
"There was a little bit of – with the crowd and the situation with the headsets, there was a little bit of confusion early on. By the time he was able to cleanly hear me and get everybody aligned, too much time had come off the clock," Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell acknowledged. "Probably looking back on it, just should have clocked it and taken the three snaps from there to try to punch the ball in the end zone.
"But wanted to try – the way we were defended down there, if we can get a call, that essentially gives us a chance to score before they can set their defensive plan, bring extra DBs and things in the game to defend some of our personnel," O'Connell continued. "I wanted to try to get one off. At the very least, you're thinking it's an incomplete and you've got enough time under our normal operation to get a few more, exhaust the rest of the downs if you need them.
"That's not what took place, and then we had the unfortunate tipped ball pick there that eliminated our opportunity to win the football game," he added.
Despite ups and downs through all four quarters, the Vikings had opportunities on those final two drives to secure a victory – and that's what will sting the worst.
"Very tough ending to a football game that, quite frankly, we felt like was in our grasp again and didn't execute at the end," O'Connell said. "We needed to, on either of our final two possessions, get one of those football in the end zone."
The head coach later reemphasized responsibility for the decision, saying he was "trying to be too aggressive" in the heat of the moment.
"Definitely looking back on it, just wish I would have clocked it. And no matter what benefit we had going fast, the value was not received with what that execution looked like in the moment," he said. "I wish I would have just had him clock it and not tried to steal one there."
The Vikings improved in some aspects from the first two games, but there also were striking similarities.
Most upgraded was Minnesota's run game. Mattison led the way with 20 carries for 93 yards (4.7 average), followed by Chandler with 27 yards on three rushes. The Vikings previously were limited to 41 and 28 yards on the ground in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively.
"We did what we said we were going to do, try to do. The guys up front were moving guys and creating holes. We did exactly what we came in to do," Mattison said. "It feels good to believe in the run game, trust in the run game to execute, so I think if we just continue to do that, we'll put ourselves in a better position game-in and game-out to have the opportunity to win the game."
The more balanced offensive attack did allow the Vikings to hold the upper hand in time of possession (33:13 to L.A.'s 26:47), but it didn't prove enough.
Cousins once again was under considerable duress for most of the afternoon, with the Chargers notching four sacks and 13 quarterback hits.
And turnovers on offense continued to be a problem, albeit less of one. The Vikings lost one fumble, a blunder that occurred on their first drive and inside the 10-yard line when Alohi Gilman wrestled the ball out of Hockenson's grasp.
A disappointed Hockenson, who finished with eight catches for 78 yards, described the feelings after a tough game.
"This is a great locker room to be in, K.O. (O'Connell) is a great coach to play under, and you want to play for your brothers. You want to do everything you can for your brothers – and when you make mistakes and things just don't go your way, that's a hard thing to go home to," he said.
Jefferson led the Vikings with seven catches for an incredible 149 yards and one touchdown through the air. With 458 receiving yards on the season, he tied Wes Welker (2011) for the most receiving yards through the first three games of an NFL season since 1970.
It's hard to celebrate the record books, though, when Jefferson is most concerned about the win-loss column.
"I'm a competitor. I hate losing," Jefferson said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I just hate the feeling of losing, whether it's football or a board game. It's always that competitive spirit in me. I hate losing. Every week I try to go out there and give it my best, give it my all. To come up short three times in a row is tough."
It's early in the season, no doubt. But the Vikings also understand they face an uphill climb having yet to find their first win. Within the division, the Packers and Lions improved to 2-1 Sunday with wins over the Saints and Falcons, respectively; Minnesota and Chicago falling to 0-3. The Bears trailed 41-3 in the fourth quarter at the time of this story's publication.
O'Connell maintains belief in the Vikings locker room and his coaching staff to right the ship.
"What we are going to do is continue to find a way to amend, coaches included, starting with myself, to … find a way to do a little bit more and find a way to complete four quarters of football the way we need to win games," he said. "And that's complementary. When you're playing against a really good offense on the other side, 475 yards of offense is great, but we still finished with 24 points, and they finished with 28. So, it wasn't good enough to win."
O'Connell noted that with the Rams in 2021, his team lost three consecutive games (Weeks 9-12 with a Week 11 bye) and still went on to win the Super Bowl.
In other words, getting out of this hole is not impossible.
"I believe in this team. I believe in the makeup of this team. I believe in our leadership. I believe in our coaches, and we are going to continue to work," O'Connell said. "That is not one concern of mine with the type of guys we have in there. We can be disappointed, and we can be very upset about the outcome today, which everybody in that locker room, coaches and players included, we are. We're right there with our fans and feel it.
"Our backs are against the wall now," he added. "We've gotta find a way to get our first win this week and go on the road to do it and just see if we can start stacking them from there and working our way out. Got a lot of football left."