Fumbles keep Vikings from leaving Arizona with a big win

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As a rule, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer does not believe in moral victories. He'll likely have none of that narrative after Thursday night, after a game the Vikings could have won if not for three fumbles in Arizona Cardinals territory.

But considering the Vikings were without four defensive starters -- including three players who might be their most important on defense -- it's tough not to look at Thursday's 23-20 loss to the Cardinals and see reasons for encouragement, especially when compared to their blowout loss to Seattle at home on Sunday.

The game felt much like the Vikings' loss to Denver by the same score in October; they fell behind 20-10 on the road against an established contender and tied the score before allowing a game-winning field goal. The Cardinals' game-winning drive included a 10-yard catch by guard Mike Iupati on a tipped pass.

In reality, Thursday's game wasn't going to make or break the Vikings' playoff hopes. They're almost assured of a postseason berth if they take care of their next two home games against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, and with 10 days to get healthy, they'll head into that stretch with about as many positive feelings as can be gained from a three-point loss on the road.

What it means: The Vikings are 8-5; they're a half-game behind the Green Bay Packers, who play the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field on Sunday. The Vikings would fall to the sixth spot in the NFC playoff race if Seattle wins on Sunday, but no other team behind them is better than 6-6 at the moment.

One reason to get excited: The Vikings seemed to find something that would work in the first half on offense, posting 210 yards on a combination of quick passes from Teddy Bridgewater and 12 runs from Adrian Peterson. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bridgewater went 9-of-10 for 113 yards on passes of 5 yards or fewer in the first half, helping the Vikings gain 210 yards of offense. It helped Bridgewater fare better against the blitz, and the Vikings at least seemed to find something they can lean on in the passing game.

One reason to panic: Those three fumbles cost the Vikings a chance at points that would have staked them to an improbable victory on the road and put them at 9-4. One was Peterson's seventh fumble of the year, on a puzzling reverse call. And on the game's final play, Dwight Freeney tossed Matt Kalil aside before stripping Bridgewater of the ball as he tried to throw.

What were they thinking? The Vikings were set up for a 49-yard field goal with 13 seconds left in the game, when they opted to call one more pass play to try and get closer. Zimmer said the Vikings were trying to get the ball to the sidelines, with no timeouts left on a third down, and Bridgewater said he knew he couldn't take a sack. But with Bridgewater in a seven-step dropback, and Mike Wallace the only viable option on the sideline, Dwight Freeney stripped Bridgewater to seal the game.

Fantasy watch: Peterson finished with 69 yards on 23 carries against one of the league's best defenses, but he did gain 17 yards on a screen pass on the Vikings' game-tying drive in the fourth quarter. He became the 13th player in NFL history to reach 100 career touchdowns when he scored from 9 yards out in the first quarter.

Ouch: Cornerback Xavier Rhodes left in the second quarter with an apparent wrist/forearm injury, but returned to the game after getting his wrist taped. He left again in the fourth quarter before returning.

Rough night for Waynes: Rookie Trae Waynes got his first NFL start, but had a tough time against the Cardinals. He got walled off in pursuit of John Brown on his 65-yard touchdown, and appeared to be confused in coverage on Michael Floyd's 42-yard score. Shortly after that, Waynes was pulled from the game; he came back in for Rhodes.

Game ball: It'll go to Bridgewater, who threw for a career-high 335 yards and led an 88-yard game-tying drive before his fumble at the end. The quarterback had what should be classified as his best game in the NFL, and he'll have something to build on for the rest of the season.