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Zulgad: As offense continues to struggle, Vikings see playoff hopes slip sliding away

By Judd Zulgad

The Vikings’ entered Thursday’s game in Detroit with an opportunity to put their post bye-week blues firmly in their rearview mirror.

A four-game losing streak had ended last Sunday with a home victory over Arizona and a second win in four days would have put Minnesota atop the NFC North with a one-game lead over the Lions. That is why the contention from this space was that the Vikings needed to beat the Lions in order take any real satisfaction from defeating the Cardinals.

That, of course, did not happen. The Lions turned a Darius Slay interception of a Sam Bradford pass into a Matt Prater 40-yard field goal that came as time in regulation expired and gave Detroit a 16-13 victory.

The Lions (7-4) took a one-game lead over the Vikings (6-5) but, in reality, it’s two games because the Lions swept the season series and, thus, own the first tie-breaker. Eighteen days before, Prater had made a 58-yard field goal late in regulation to force overtime and then Detroit won on the opening possession when Golden Tate scored on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford.

“We continue to shoot ourselves in the foot with some of those penalties and negative plays,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’re just going to keep working, stay together and keep fighting.”

That’s admirable but it no longer might be enough for a team that was once atop the NFC with a 5-0 record. The Vikings will be underdogs next Thursday when they play host to the Dallas Cowboys (10-1).

The schedule should get easier after that with games against Jacksonville (2-8), Indianapolis (5-5), Green Bay (4-6) and Chicago (2-8). The Colts and Bears games will be at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The issue is that assuming the Vikings’ injury-riddled offense will be able to score enough points to beat any team is a dangerous thing at this point. The Vikings already lost at woeful Chicago on Halloween and are now 1-3 in the division.

The NFC playoff picture currently looks like this: Dallas, Seattle (7-2-1), Detroit (7-4), Atlanta (6-4), the Giants (7-3) and Washington (6-4-1). The Vikings are in the seventh position, the first team out of the playoffs, followed by Tampa Bay (5-5) and Philadelphia (5-5), which also beat the Vikings.

The Vikings’ best hope still might be to win the division, but that means the Lions will have to start to fold in their last five games. Detroit’s opponents include New Orleans, Chicago, the Giants, Dallas and Green Bay. The Saints (4-6), Giants and Cowboys games all will be on the road.

If the Vikings miss the playoffs, they undoubtedly will look back and lament both losses to the Lions as well as another close one at Washington (26-20).

Watching the Vikings’ offense attempt to operate on Thursday was a painful experience. Quarterback Sam Bradford, playing without top receiver Stefon Diggs (knee), saw his already depleted offensive line lose two more starters.

Center Joe Berger, the only member of the line to play every game this season, suffered a concussion in the first half and right tackle Jeremiah Sirles (hip) was lost in the fourth quarter and replaced by rookie Willie Beavers, a fourth-round pick whom the team released at the end of training camp.

The Vikings offense looked as if it was trying to navigate its way through quicksand. Bradford completed 31 of 37 passes for 224 yards with no touchdowns and the key late pick.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had Bradford throwing quick and short passes, in large part because he knew if Bradford hung onto the ball that he might be risking the quarterback’s safety.

Officially, Bradford wasn’t sacked but that was only because Bradford was fortunate enough to bring his arm forward in the first quarter as he was being hit by Ezekiel Ansah after the defensive end beat left tackle T.J. Clemmings. Initially, it was ruled a fumble that was recovered by the Lions, but a review resulted in an overturned call and the Vikings eventually scored on the drive to tie the score at 7-7.

The Vikings final six points came off the foot of kicker Kai Forbath, who hit field goals of 30 and 28 yards in the second half, the second of which gave the Vikings a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Bradford’s longest completion went for 41 yards to Jerick McKinnon but that was a short pass that the uncovered running back turned into a long gain.

The Vikings were able to beat the Cardinals because they got a 100-yard interception return from Xavier Rhodes and a 104-yard kickoff return from Cordarrelle Patterson.

It’s simply not realistic to think that the Vikings are going to get a touchdown from their defense or specials, or both, in every remaining game but, yet, that’s exactly what they need.

There will be some who think that running back Adrian Peterson’s return from injured reserve will change everything but that’s a reach. Peterson is 31-years-old and averaged 1.6 yards per carry before injuring his knee in Week 2.

The Vikings averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 16 rushing attempts Thursday but 22 of those yards came on a reverse to Patterson and McKinnon had his biggest run (10 yards) out of the Wildcat formation. The run blocking remains below average the majority of the time.

There is no fix for the offensive line and that means there may be no way to fix this offense. That would mean there’s no way to repair what truly ails a Vikings team that once appeared to be a Super Bowl contender.

“It’s obviously frustrating,” linebacker Chad Greenway said after the loss. “You just can’t make the mistakes we’re making in all phases…. Thankfully for us, everything is still in front of us. We’re going to need some help now, but everything is still in front of us. If we win, good things will happen. We know we’re in every ball game and we’re competing out tails off. We’re a good football team, we just have to figure out how to win these games.”

If the Vikings don’t figure that out very soon, they won’t have to worry about a return trip to the postseason.

The post Zulgad: As offense continues to struggle, Vikings see playoff hopes slip sliding away appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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