Entering the fourth quarter of Saturday's game at Cincinnati, the Vikings defense hadn't allowed an offensive touchdown for 166 game minutes.
Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores schemed offenses out of touchdowns for nearly three games. His variety of pressures and versatile secondary helped keep quarterbacks guessing.
That formula, which held opponents to just 15 points per game since Week 6, fractured in the final 15 minutes of regulation. The Bengals scored 21 fourth-quarter points to the Vikings seven to rally from down 14 and force overtime.
In the extra period, both teams exchanged opening possessions that ended with punts. On the Bengals second overtime series, quarterback Jake Browning connected with receiver Tyler Boyd on a 44-yard catch-and-run that put Cincinnati in field goal range.
Two plays later, kicker Evan McPherson nailed a 29-yard game-winning field goal. Despite notching a season-high five sacks, the Vikings lost 27-24 to the Bengals at Paycor Stadium.
"Defensively, we played a great first half that allowed us to really score on both of our first drives of each half and at least generate a lead that we were unfortunately unable to hold on to there," Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said. "But you got to credit Jake Browning and Zac [Taylor] and their offense for hitting the gas there in the second half."
Turnovers cost Minnesota again. Quarterback Nick Mullens threw two first-half interceptions, both within Vikings field goal range. But Mullens bounced back, tossing two second-half touchdowns to rookie receiver Jordan Addison.
Addison's first touchdown put Minnesota up 11. Minnesota followed that with a 39-yard field goal by Greg Joseph. But then, the Bengals offense started finding answers for the Vikings pressure looks and zone defense.
No score was more spectacular (or timely) than receiver Tee Higgins' 21-yard game-tying grab. With 48 seconds to play, the Vikings were nursing a 7-point lead, but Browning and the Bengals were driving. Browning completed five consecutive passes to start the scoring drive. Quick completions to Higgins (13 yards), Charlie Jones (7 yards), and Andre Iosivas (5 yards) pushed Cincinnati to the Vikings 21-yard line.
On second-and-10, Browning escaped a six-man Vikings rush and bailed to his right. Just before outside linebacker Pat Jones II reached him, Browning released a high-arching pass for Higgins just outside the front right pylon. Higgins elevated over cornerback Akayleb Evans, caught the ball at the 1-yard line, and blindly extended the ball across the plane with his right hand.
Browning's ability to extend plays gashed the Vikings again in overtime. The Bengals played without star receiver Ja'Marr Chase in overtime due to a shoulder injury. But Browning was comfortable disturbing the football quickly to offset the Vikings pressure. When Browning had to create, he made plays. Boyd's 44-yard catch came after Browning bailed out of the pocket and delivered a running-right strike to his crossing receiver.
When Browning started freelancing, the Vikings couldn't notch a fourth-quarter or overtime stop.
"Defensively I know our guys were battling all the way down to the very end, and that's where you got to give them credit for making a few of those plays there," O'Connell said. "Third and long, they get a play. They get a throw up to Higgins for the touchdown. And then the Boyd catch on another one. They made some huge plays that were really had to make with how the game was going."
The Bengals trio of Higgins, Chase and Boyd combined for 178 yards on 11 receptions. Browning finished with 29 completions for 324 passing yards, his second-highest total of the season. His 42 attempts were a season high.
Rookie linebacker Ivan Pace, Jr., and safety Camryn Bynum tied for a team-high nine tackles. Evans notched his first career interception. He picked off Browning on the Bengals first drive of the second half. But the Vikings again lost the turnover battle, which has had a direct correlation between wins and losses for Minnesota this season.
"That was a tough one. We prepared all week, and at the end of the game, we came up short and lost the turnover battle," Hunter said. "We've definitely got to get better at that."
Hunter had another dominant and historic game, recording two sacks, three tackles for a loss, and five total tackles. He passed Vikings legend Jared Allen on the Vikings career sacks leaderboard, moving into sixth in franchise history (86.5 sacks).
But Hunter downplayed the accomplishment, instead focusing on the team and the disappointing loss.
"I'm about going out there and doing what I need to do for my teammates. "It's not about me. It's about the team, so I'm doing what I can for them," Hunter said. "That's a great football team," Hunter said. "Unfortunately, we had more mistakes than they had."
Mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Vikings a chance at controlling their own NFC North outcome. Had Minnesota won its final four games, they'd be division champs. Their playoff hopes, however, are still very much alive.
Next week, the Vikings host the Lions on Christmas Eve at U.S. Bank Stadium.