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Zulgad: Nothing to celebrate: Narrow victory only serves to highlight flaws of these Vikings

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Minnesota Vikings
Dec 9, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mackensie Alexander (24) celebrates with free safety Xavier Woods (23) during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings spent the opening half of their game against Pittsburgh on Thursday night scoring 23 unanswered points and showing just how dominant they can be when they’re clicking.

It was perplexing.

The Vikings then spent the second half putting on a display of just how inept they can be as they gave up 28 points and nearly allowed a touchdown on the last play of the fourth quarter that would have given the Steelers the ability to tie the score with a two-point conversion.

It was infuriating.

But put it all together and Minnesota’s 36-28 victory provided the perfect snapshot of the Vikings’ season. A team with enough talent to be far better than its 6-7 record, but with such little resolve that it wasn’t shocking that it nearly blew what had become a 29-0 lead in the third quarter.

Teams that play close games, like the Vikings have all season, are often known as a resilient, hard-working bunch. Not these Vikings. This team isn’t lovable; it isn’t even likeable.

Yes, you had to admire the fact that 11 days after suffering a dislocated shoulder that running back Dalvin Cook returned to rush for 205 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns. He had a franchise-record 153 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first half. Cook’s 205 yards are the most in an NFL game this season, and are the seventh most in a single game in Vikings history.

Justin Jefferson, who had a few drops Thursday, including one that resulted in a Kirk Cousins interception, remains one of the NFL’s best wide receivers. He caught seven passes for 79 yards and a touchdown on 15 targets.

But, for the most part, this Vikings team seems to delight in having made this season as joyless as possible. Each game feels like a trip to the dentist’s office. Twice, the Vikings have recovered from being two games under .500 to pull even and each time they have lost the next two. Minnesota will try to make it a hat trick a week from Monday night when it plays the Bears in Chicago.

Thursday’s victory came after back-to-back losses at San Francisco and previously winless Detroit. There were some who felt that if the Vikings had lost to the Steelers that coach Mike Zimmer would be shown the door on Friday morning. This wasn’t the first time that the Vikings faced a win-or-Zimmer-might-be-fired game. Each time they have scrambled to get the win and left us wondering what ownership would have done if the result was different.

You had to wonder how owners Zygi and Mark Wilf felt as they watched the Vikings take command and then nearly fold on Thursday before 66,718 fans at U.S. Bank Stadium. From the Vikings’ standpoint, every part of this experience felt joyless. Four days after somehow losing the Lions on the final play of the game, the Vikings came close to blowing a 29-point lead on the last play of the fourth quarter.

The Wilfs had to be livid about that — although relieved it didn’t happen — but they also had to be questioning how the Vikings could look so good in the first two quarters after rarely looking like that for much of the season. The Steelers were awful in the first half, but that was in part because the Vikings looked so dominant. Four of Minnesota’s five sacks came in the first 30 minutes, as did six of Jefferson’s receptions for 67 yards.

Cousins was 10-of-19 for 124 yards with a touchdown and a 90.7 passer rating. He completed only four passes to teammates in the second half, while completing two others to Steelers defenders.

Nothing that Zygi or Mark Wilf saw on Thursday night should affect their plan for after the season. The win might have saved Zimmer’s job for now, but it almost certainly won’t get him an invitation to return for the 2022 season. There also should be a plan for Rick Spielman that will result in a new general manager running the franchise this offseason.

The Vikings’ past two games have provided even more confirmation that changes to the front office, coaching staff and roster are necessary. Trying to win football games shouldn’t be akin to pulling teeth, but somehow the 2021 Vikings have made this the case.

Thursday was no different.

The fact the Vikings escaped with a victory, when they should have won by 20 or more, only serves to highlight how unnecessarily flawed this franchise has become.