MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings on Sunday became the first NFL team in 97 attempts to come out victorious after trailing by 20 points or more at halftime. Their 27-23 win over the Denver Broncos has them sitting at 8-3 headed into their Week 12 bye with a 92.9% chance to make the postseason, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
The Vikings proved they can win without a successful run game, as Dalvin Cook was limited to 26 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. Kirk Cousins made one of the best throws of his career to Stefon Diggs to ignite Minnesota’s comeback and the Vikings scored a touchdown on every possession in the second half. After getting whipped up and down the field by Broncos backup quarterback Brandon Allen, the Vikings' red zone defense came through in the most critical time, forcing three straight incomplete passes from the 4-yard line in the final seconds.
Minnesota was in position to lose for most of the game. Against a three-win Denver team, that’s a problem. Within this victory, the Vikings received a dose of sobering reality about the areas that need work if they want to continue to hold on to their postseason spot. The things they got away with against Denver won’t likely be allowed against the 8-2 Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 on Monday Night Football (Dec. 2, 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN).
"In the playoffs, blowouts aren't really going to happen," Cousins said. "So it's probably better to prepare yourselves for the types of games that are usually going to happen week in and week out."
Here’s a look at three areas worth focusing on during the bye week.
Getting away from what Cousins does best
For every game plan that checks the boxes on the "this is what plays best to Kirk Cousins’ strengths" list, there have been several instances where going away from that strategy has cost or nearly cost the Vikings games.
Cousins averaged 4.8 yards per attempt in the first half, and despite completing 11 of 12 passes in that time frame, he totaled 58 yards.
Big shock here, but play-action was the catalyst for Cousins to get going in the second half. This season, Cousins leads the NFL with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions on play-action throws, which makes the one play-action pass he attempted in the first half (matching his fewest attempts in the first half as a member of the Vikings) perplexing. In the second half, Cousins completed three of four play-action passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner.
In a race against the clock, Minnesota went into hurry-up mode via its two-minute offense to march down the field on drives of 75, 75, 62 and 67 yards. Cousins looked like an entirely different quarterback in the second half, rolling out to his left and taking shots over the middle of the field.
"We had two bootlegs in the second half, and I think because we got back in the game, you now had your whole offense available to you," Cousins said. "We didn't want to get out of that hurry-up mode because of what it was doing for us, but we weren't only going to be dropping back. I think we had the whole offense at our disposal, and that's when you can run the other pieces."
Cousins and the offense have shown in the past two weeks that they’re capable of getting into shootouts and winning, even when they have to play the "dropback game" they say they’re trying to stay away from.
The struggles of Minnesota’s cornerbacks have been well-documented this season, and it will continue to be an issue until something gets fixed.
The Vikings' defense gave up huge plays downfield, which has become an alarming trend for a unit that ranked third against the pass last season. Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton dismantled Minnesota deep on two catches of 40-plus yards, which forced the Vikings to change the way they defended him and altered the type of pressure they had against Allen.
"Sutton was killing us, so we had to double him," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "So when you're doubling him, we weren't rushing as many guys."
Minnesota ranks 30th in QBR allowed (97.0) on deep passes, which wasn’t just limited to Sutton. Rookie tight end Noah Fant was a constant problem for the Vikings in Week 11. And Sutton, who launched a bomb to Tim Patrick after receiving the ball on a reverse, put the ball in just the right spot, knowing that cornerback Trae Waynes wasn’t going to get his head around in time.
The Vikings' lack of pass-rush pressure without Linval Joseph (knee) certainly contributes to what’s happening on the back end of their defense. If Minnesota doesn’t get this area fixed soon, it's in for a rude awakening against Russell Wilson, who has the highest QBR and second-highest completion percentage in the NFL on throws of 20-plus yards downfield this season.
Defensive pass interference penalties are forcing cornerbacks to play differently in 2019. Zimmer was adamant weeks ago that cornerback Xavier Rhodes has to play his game "like a power forward," meaning use his physical edge to win one-on-one battles with receivers.
At this point, that type of play isn’t even the concern. Rhodes’ 24-yard DPI on Sutton came when he went grabbing for the receiver and tackling him in the end zone. He wasn’t flagged for using his physical tools to body his opponent on the play. He was penalized for a costly error he knows not to make.
These types of penalties are wearing thin on coaches across the league, but this wasn’t even the most near-disastrous mistake the Vikings made and somehow overcame against the Broncos.
Riley Reiff's offensive holding penalty wiped out a 34-yard reception by Diggs in the second quarter. Somehow, down 17 points and in second-and-20 territory from their own 26-yard line, the Vikings thought it would be wise to run the ball. Cook gained 1 yard on the ensuing play.
Special teams play was less than stellar too. Ameer Abdullah fumbled a kickoff return and Eric Wilson's neutral zone infraction gave Denver a fresh set of downs and could have been the mistake that shifted the tide of the game had the Vikings' defense not cooled the Broncos’ momentum by holding them to a field goal.
The penalties, fumbles and big plays allowed could have served as the dagger had Denver not left the door open for Minnesota to come back and ultimately win the game. Against superior competition, that won’t likely play out the same way.