Zulgad: Purple pretender: Vikings fail to prove they are among best in NFC

The Vikings entered Sunday on a four-game winning streak, having long forgotten the struggles of a 2-2 start and as four-point favorites in Kansas City. The absence of Patrick Mahomes was a big reason the Vikings were favored to beat the Chiefs, but even without the 2018 NFL MVP this game presented Mike Zimmer’s team with an opportunity to prove it was among the best in the NFC.

Simply put, teams with aspirations of making a playoff run go into tough stadiums and come out with victories that might not win you style points but prove to be impressive. The Vikings had that opportunity in Arrowhead Stadium, holding a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, but failed when it mattered most in a 26-23 loss that dropped them to 6-3 on the season.

Want to blame Kirk Cousins for this defeat? Go right ahead. He finished 19 of 38 for 220 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions but far too often it seemed like the skittish quarterback who drives Vikings fans crazy had returned. Cousins was brilliant in winning NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors during the Vikings’ 4-0 October but that wasn’t the guy we saw Sunday.

Want to blame offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and assistant head coach Gary Kubiak? I won’t stop you. There were some baffling play calls and how Laquon Treadwell (three catches for 58 yards) ends up with more receptions than Stefon Diggs (one catch for 4 yards) needs to be explained. Diggs having one catch for 4 yards — he gained more yards (12) on a rushing play — needs to be explained. Even then, I’m not sure it would make sense. Especially with wide receiver Adam Thielen having exited early when he reaggravated a hamstring injury.

Want to blame Zimmer’s defense and the secondary? You have a point. All week long we discussed concerns about aging cornerback Xavier Rhodes being picked on by Matt Moore but instead the Kansas City quarterback went at corner Trae Waynes and had plenty of success. Moore threw for 275 yards and a touchdown and completed a key 13-yard pass to Tyreek Hill late in the fourth quarter that set up Harrison Butker’s 44-yard field goal that won the game. Moore also threw a 40-yard¬† touchdown pass to Hill in the first quarter on which the speedy wide receiver got behind Waynes.

Want to blame Dan Bailey? The Vikings’ kicker missed an extra-point attempt after a touchdown early in the third quarter, so instead of having a seven-point lead Minnesota was up by six. Want to blame Britton Colquitt? He spoiled an outstanding day — one in which he was going against his brother and Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt — when his punt from the Vikings’ 18-yard line went only 27 yards and put Kansas City in outstanding field position to begin its game-winning drive.

There is more blame that could be spread around, but the point is that after beating up on four bad to mediocre teams the Vikings faced a big-time challenge, had an opportunity to win and failed. Minnesota remains in good shape in the NFC North race after the visiting Packers lost to the Chargers on Sunday and thus only maintained only a one-game lead. This came a week after Green Bay went into Kansas City and beat the Chiefs.

Sunday started a three-in-four-game stretch in which we will find out the true identity of the 2019 Vikings. Right now, this isn’t looking like anything close to Zimmer’s 13-3 bunch from two years ago. That club was better on defense and mentally tougher. This team, much like its quarterback, seems to need the conditions to be perfect. Sunday’s defeat was similar to the Vikings’ loss in Week 2 at Lambeau Field. Minnesota¬†trailed 21-0 in the second quarter before the Packers all but begged the Vikings to beat them. Again, teams with aspirations of making a playoff run win that game and the Vikings did not.

Next Sunday night the Vikings will play the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, and the storyline will revolve around Cousins’ struggles in prime time. A Thursday night victory over a bad Washington team at U.S. Bank Stadium was a necessary step for the Vikings but it did little to allay concerns about Cousins’ abilities when the football world is focused on him. The Vikings and Cousins — with apologies to P.J. Fleck — do not appear to be among the NFL’s elite.

San Francisco (8-0) and New Orleans (7-1) look to be the class of the conference and then there is a secondary group of teams in which the Vikings appear to belong.

After playing the Cowboys, the Vikings will return to the easy part of their schedule when Denver makes a visit. That will be followed by a bye week and then a Monday night game in Seattle. If the Vikings want to join the conversation that currently involves the 49ers and Saints, then they are going to need to go 3-0 in those games.

If they don’t, that does not automatically mean the Vikings are destined to miss the playoffs and Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are in jeopardy of being fired. But it does mean it will be difficult to take the Vikings seriously as a threat in the postseason.