MINNEAPOLIS — Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer didn't mince words late Sunday night.
"This was a tough loss tonight. We had a good crowd; it was loud," Zimmer said after the Vikings fell 20-16 to the Cowboys on Halloween night. "Home, prime-time game. And we had plenty of opportunities to win that football game and we didn't do it."
Zimmer will certainly look at his defense — the unit he takes pride and joy in — as a big reason for a stunning and gut-wrenching defeat in Week 8.
For the third straight week, the defense took the field late in the fourth quarter with the lead and a chance to close the game out.
It didn't happen at home against the Lions, even if the Vikings eventually rallied for a win.
It didn't happen on the road in Carolina, as Minnesota needed overtime for that victory.
And it didn't happen again on Sunday Night Football, as a national television audience watched the Cowboys (with backup quarterback Cooper Rush) drive for a game-winning touchdown in the final three minutes.
"We haven't finished all year," said Vikings safety Xavier Woods. "Defensively, we haven't finished all year, and that's been our Achilles heel."
Woods was the star of the show for most of the game, registering an interception, sack and forced fumble against his former team.
Eric Kendricks and Everson Griffen also had sacks on Rush, who made his first career start in place of Dak Prescott and his injured calf.
Rush will always remember this one, especially the game-winning drive, but that final sequence seemed to include as many Vikings miscues as Cowboys successes.
Minnesota led 16-13 with just under three minutes left. Dallas, which started at its own 25-yard line, moved quickly with back-to-back passes to Amari Cooper for 51 combined yards.
But that's when the wheels fell off for the Vikings defense.
Harrison Smith was whistled for illegal use of hands on a play when the Cowboys fumbled and the Vikings recovered.
A Dallas holding penalty forced the Cowboys into second-and-13 from the Minnesota 22. And when that second-down play resulted in a loss of 3 yards on a pass, the Vikings called their first timeout to try and preserve the clock with 1:04 remaining.
So, on third-and-16 from the Vikings 25, Dallas lined up in a formation that looked similar to the one they had scored a 73-yard touchdown on earlier.
Zimmer said postgame that someone suggested he call a timeout to combat that, and he did. But league rules say a team can't call back-to-back timeouts without a play happening.
And even though some referees ignore the erroneous request for a timeout (which can't be called), this one was granted. And with it came a 5-yard delay of game penalty on the Vikings.
"Yeah, I screwed up. I forgot that I called one. I knew the play that they were running, it was really the same play they hit down the middle against us for a long touchdown. And somebody said, 'Call timeout,' and I did. The official wasn't supposed to grant it. They're supposed to … anyway, it's not his fault. We ended up getting a 5-yard penalty."
So not only did the Vikings burn their second timeout, but they were penalized at the same time.
It was still third-and-11 at the 20, but Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott took a short pass, rumbled through Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Barr and moved the chains with a 15-yard gain.
"We got them in third-and-long, and he checked it down and ran through two guys," Zimmer said. "Trying to help the corners out a little bit tonight because they were needing some help that particular play."
One play later, Cooper hauled in a 5-yard touchdown catch that sealed the game.
Rush threw for 325 yards with two scores and an interception in his first NFL start. Woods said after the game that the Vikings only prepared for Prescott, and watched minimal film on Rush. They instead focused on the offense in general.
He noted that there was some sting in losing to a backup quarterback who had only attempted three NFL passes before Sunday night.
"Little bit, but a loss is a loss no matter how you take that L, it's still a loss, no matter who it's to or who it's by," Woods said.
The Vikings yielded 419 yards to Dallas, allowed the Cowboys to convert on seven of 14 tries on third downs and couldn't corral two other interceptions against Rush.
The loss of Danielle Hunter to a shoulder injury in the first half may have impacted Minnesota's ability to create a pass rush, but Dallas lost left tackle Tyron Smith to an ankle injury during the game. Hunter, Zimmer said, is scheduled to undergo an MRI Monday.
As the Vikings left U.S. Bank Stadium with a bitter taste and a 3-4 record, the defense mostly thought of that costly final drive.
"Those kinds of things will get you beat," Zimmer said.