Plenty of ink has been spilled, and plenty of commentators' words have been offered, on the players the Minnesota Vikings don't have on the field: They're without Adrian Peterson. They lost their veteran quarterback. The two players they signed to contract extensions before this season have missed a combined 20 games. By the end of Sunday's 37-35 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Vikings were playing with a Labor Day waiver pickup at right tackle and a seventh-round pick at linebacker.
There's little doubt about the Vikings' resourcefulness, or that they've made progress in their first year under Mike Zimmer. But as he stepped to the postgame podium on Sunday, for a terse five-minute news conference that presumably was more family-friendly than the remarks he made to his team (Zimmer said his message to his players was "stronger"), it was clear how little that progress interested him at the moment.
"All the things I've been trying to preach for 11 months we didn't do today," he told reporters in Miami. "Critical errors in the field -- red zone, third downs. It just wasn't a good day."
The Vikings are absolutely closer to being a playoff team now than they were a year ago, and they deserve credit for having a shot at .500 until the final minute of a Week 16 game. But had they been able to turn a handful of close games in another direction, they'd be firmly in the NFC playoff picture, and their losses in close games stand as a reminder of what they still have to fix.
They lost in Week 7 at Buffalo when they couldn't get off the field on fourth-and-20. They blew leads of 10-0, 14-0 and 14-0 at Chicago, Detroit and Miami, dropping all of those games when -- in order -- a broken clock led Teddy Bridgewater to think he needed to try a desperation pass, a missed block from a backup lineman led to a blocked field goal and a poor snap triggered a blocked punt for a safety. The Vikings' last five losses have been by a combined 16 points; turn even three of those games into wins, and we're dissecting playoff scenarios right now.
Zimmer has a sign in the Vikings' meeting room that says, "Tough teams win in the fourth quarter," and he had talked to his players all week about the importance of finishing games. On Sunday, the Vikings allowed three fourth-quarter scores. The first one capped a drive on which Gerald Hodges was flagged for unnecessary roughness. The last came a play after Xavier Rhodes drew his second penalty of the day and seventh of the season -- this one a pass interference penalty on third-and-14 that put the Dolphins at the Vikings' 3.
"Defense has got to play way better. We've got to eliminate the penalties," said defensive end Everson Griffen, who jumped offsides twice. "Too many penalties: off sides, roughing the passers, holding. We got to eliminate the penalties. Penalties kill you. We probably had a hundred yards in penalties, so that's one touchdown."
It was 74 yards, actually, but Griffen's point is a good one. The Vikings are still inflicting enough wounds on themselves to lose close games in a league where the margin between victory and defeat is so razor-thin, they have valid reason to think they could have made the playoffs in spite of all the players they're missing. No doubt those players could have helped paper over some of the errors, and perhaps even turned a few of the close losses into wins.
But Zimmer has seemed almost as interested this season in the progress of his team as he has in the final results, and the way the Vikings lost on Sunday was again symptomatic of the things they need to fix.
"I think it was poor performance by us," Zimmer said. "We did things that I haven't seen in a long time.”