Vikings eliminated from playoff contention with loss to Saints

Not even a Christmas miracle could help the Minnesota Vikings keep their playoff hopes alive against the New Orleans Saints on Friday.

In a 52-33 loss that knocked the Vikings out of playoff contention, the defense allowed the franchise's most points since 1963.

“Really disappointed defensively,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “You’ve got to work really hard to give up 52.”

With as many injuries as Minnesota had across the board, especially on defense, it had no shot against a Saints team primed for a deep postseason run. For a fifth straight week, the Vikings fell behind by 10 points and were unable to recover.

In spite of how bad Friday's loss looked, there's quite a bit of optimism around some of the young players on this team. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson has made his mark and should be a shoo-in for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and rookie cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand, who recorded his first career interception, also shine a bright light on the future.

But for now, there's very little to be happy about after the Vikings' season effectively ended. Minnesota will wrap up the 2020 campaign next week in Detroit.

Truth hurts: Fox analyst Troy Aikman pulled no punches when painting a picture of the Vikings' defense.

"They're just not very good," Aikman said as Minnesota proceeded to give up 174 rushing yards in the first half, the most the team has given up in a half since Arizona rolled up 205 first-half yards on the ground in 2005.

Alvin Kamara had 22 carries for 155 yards and six touchdowns, including three scores in the first half.

But this has been the state of things all 2020 because of injuries and young players filling roles out of necessity. With Troy Dye (concussion/hamstring) and Todd Davis (ribs) joining Eric Kendricks on the inactive list, the Vikings were set for an uphill battle.

Kamara's previous rushing high against Minnesota was 45 yards in 13 rushes in 2018. The difference then? Kendricks and Anthony Barr were there to stop the Saints. In Week 16, Minnesota stood no chance with such little linebacker depth and terrible tackling efforts, notably by safety Anthony Harris on three of Kamara's five touchdowns.

Questionable decisions: To be clear, Minnesota's offense kept the game close, but the Vikings have rarely been able to capitalize off turnovers (38 points off turnovers is tied for 28th, and they scored off one interception in New Orleans) and have made costly mistakes at inopportune times.

Take for example Irv Smith Jr.'s second touchdown in the third quarter. Instead of going for two to make it a three-point game, Zimmer brought Dan Bailey out to kick an extra point attempt after he missed one nine minutes before.

The Vikings' two-minute offense has also been a head-scratcher throughout the season. Coupled with playcalling and clock management, it has been particularly bad in these past two losses. On the Vikings' final possession of the first half, quarterback Kirk Cousins targeted both of his tight ends over Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Maybe those were where his reads took him, but after getting a first down on a 13-yard pass to Smith, the Vikings waited too long to run a play and had to burn their third timeout with 12 seconds left. Instead of taking a deep shot on the final play of the half, Cousins threw an 8-yard pass to Tyler Conklin.

Clock management decisions often always rest with the head coach. But the playcalling on these two-minute drives are on offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

What's next: With one game left and no shot at the postseason, the Vikings have a handful of questions to answer in the short term, such as whether they'll shut down injured players for the rest of the year and rest Dalvin Cook vs. Detroit.

Longer term, they need to figure out what their draft strategy is for 2021. Without a doubt, this is the worst defensive line the Vikings have had since Zimmer took over in 2014. The Vikings need to focus on upgrading their defensive tackle spots (nose tackle Michael Pierce should be back next season, but the three-technique spot is an absolute must) and add an edge rusher after this unit generated only one pressure on Drew Brees, which was the fewest in a game by any team since 2016, and brought their pressure rate down to 23.2% on the season, which ranks 30th.

Minnesota also has a decision to make when it comes to tight end. After the way Smith and Conklin performed down the stretch, it's possible veteran Kyle Rudolph, who hasn't played since Dec. 6 (foot injury), has played his last game with the Vikings. Rudolph has no guaranteed money left on his contract, which runs through 2023, and has a $7.65 million base salary next year. The Vikings could get $5.1 million in cap savings if they release him after this season.