MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Zimmer attempted to put a positive spin on the events that took place Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, but a child could have seen through this acting job.
“I thought we battled, I thought there were a lot of good things,” Zimmer said following a 30-20 loss to New Orleans. “Offensively, they really didn’t slow us down at all. We moved the ball well. Defensively, other than the wildcat throw (that went for a 44-yard gain in the first quarter) we took away the big plays pretty well. (We) just didn’t get the job done.”
Don’t be fooled by Zimmer’s words.
His tone gave away how the emotional coach really felt and so did the short answers he gave in a 3-minute, 45-second session with a group of reporters whom he had no interesting in sharing any insight into a team that has lost as many games this year as it did in the entire 2017 regular season.
The Vikings were without five starters on Sunday, including three on defense (linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Andrew Sendejo), but still led by three and had driven to the Saints 18 yard line late in the second quarter when Kirk Cousins found Adam Thielen for a 4-yard gain.
That’s when everything went wrong.
The sure-handed Thielen lost the ball when he was hit by Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore returned the fumble 54 yards to the Vikings 33-yard line and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Laquon Treadwell set up New Orleans at the Minnesota 18. Two plays later, running back Alvin Kamara scored on a 1-yard run to give the Saints a 17-13 lead. New Orleans never again trailed.
The loss — which included cornerback P.J. Williams’ 45-yard Pick Six of a Cousins pass in the third quarter — leaves everyone, including Zimmer, unsure about the Vikings. Minnesota (4-3-1) now sits in second place in the NFC North behind Chicago (4-3), which beat the Jets on Sunday.
The Vikings had a chance to put themselves in the conversation for the upper-tier teams in the NFC with a victory. Instead, the Vikings are clearly not in the same class with the Rams and Saints. Both of those teams have now beaten Minnesota this season. The Vikings, meanwhile, have yet to beat a team that has a better than .500 record this season.
Minnesota has one game to go before its bye — the Vikings will play host to the NFC North rival Lions next Sunday — and that one now will be crucial. The Vikings will play three consecutive games against division foes, facing Chicago and Green Bay in back-to-back weeks after their off week.
“We made some mistakes, yes” a salty Zimmer said Sunday night. “We turned the ball over, yes. This is still a good football team, even (if) in here it seems like a morgue. This is a good football team .These guys fought their rear ends off tonight and I’m proud of them.”
Zimmer was choosing his words carefully in part because he remembers what happened in 2016 when he failed to do so. The Vikings were 5-0 and coming out of their bye week when they lost at Philadelphia. Zimmer did not attempt to hide his anger that day and soon thereafter lost his team.
He has no interest in making that mistake again. Zimmer also had the luxury last season of criticizing any and all mistakes that Keenum made and even some that he simply came close to making. Keenum was a career backup and a harsh assessment of his play didn’t seem to impact him. The same likely would not be true when it comes to Cousins, the Vikings’ $84 million man who appears to be best treated with kid gloves.
Expectations remain high for this Vikings team, although it’s not clear how good this collection really is at the moment. Sunday’s loss to the Saints did little to answer any questions and simply created more of them. That left Zimmer in a foul mood — no matter how positive of spin he tried to put on things — and given what had just transpired it was easy to understand why.
The only question now is whether Zimmer’s mood will improve in the coming weeks. That certainly isn’t a given.