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Zulgad: This is what really cost the Vikings the chance to pull off an upset against Seattle

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks down against the Seattle Seahawks as the NFL football game ends, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 27-26. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The focus of the Vikings’ 27-26 loss on Sunday night in Seattle centered on their inability to get a first down on fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks’ 6-yard line with two minutes remaining and coach Mike Zimmer’s team up by five points. If backup running back Alexander Mattison had gotten the inches needed for the first down, the game would have been essentially over. Instead, Mattison came up short and the ball was put back in Russell Wilson’s hands with 1:57 on the clock and 94 yards to go for a touchdown.

No one should have been shocked that Wilson directed a magnificent drive that included a 39-yard completion to DK Metcalf on a fourth-and-10 that put the ball at the Vikings’ 38-yard line, and a 6-yard strike to Metcalf for the winning touchdown on fourth-and-goal. Despite the failure, Zimmer’s decision to go for it and not attempt a field goal was the right call. The Vikings had converted on fourth down twice earlier in the game and the Seahawks defense had spent the majority of the night playing the role of a sieve. Getting an inch in that case shouldn’t have been that difficult. “We came here to win, and so I’m not going to second guess any of that stuff,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t get it done.”

But the Vikings never should have found themselves in that position in the first place. That’s because the primary focus on this defeat should have been the span of 1 minute, 53 seconds in which Minnesota surrendered 21 points early in the third quarter.

The Vikings spent the first half building a 13-0 lead and looking like a team that was capable of upsetting the 4-0 Seahawks. Minnesota entered Sunday with a 1-3 record, but after atrocious back-to-back losses to Green Bay and Indianapolis to open the season, the Vikings lost by one point to Tennessee and then got an eight-point victory over Houston last weekend. The Texans ownership was so embarrassed by the loss, and everything else going wrong, that they fired Bill O’Brien as general manager and coach.

Wanting to prove that they could beat a good team, the Vikings owned the opening 30 minutes Sunday. They ran 41 plays to Seattle’s 18; outgained the Seahawks, 217-66; and held a time of possession edge of 20:16 to 9:44. When Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense did they get the ball, they didn’t do much with it. Wilson was 7-of-7 for 40 yards in the first half but was sacked four times. Considering how poor the Vikings defense had looked at previous points this season, this looked like real progress. The game plan was fantastic, the execution of it just as good.

And then came the third quarter. The tease was that Seattle got the ball to open the half and went three-and-out. The Vikings started their first drive at their own 15 as quarterback Kirk Cousins completed a pass to running back Dalvin Cook, who entered the game leading the NFL in rushing and was in the midst of carrying the type of significant workload that star running backs handle. Cook caught the ball and it was immediately clear something wasn’t right. He grabbed at the back side of his left leg. Cook had suffered a groin injury and would be on the field for only one more play the rest of the night.

That was only the start of the Vikings’ problems. The Seahawks got the ball at their own 42 on their next possession and four plays later Wilson found tight end Will Dissly on a 19-yard touchdown. Seattle was within six and was starting to roll. The Vikings’ implosion was only beginning.

The Vikings faced a third-and-17 from their own 18 on their next possession and Cousins appeared to throw an incomplete pass. That wouldn’t have been a big deal but Seattle challenged the call and it was reversed to a sack by the Seahawks, a fumble by Cousins and a recovery by linebacker K.J. Wright at Minnesota’s 15. Two plays later, Wilson found Metcalf on a 13-yard touchdown pass and Seattle had the lead.

This is where it was up to the Vikings’ veterans to stop the bleeding. This starts with Cousins. OK, he had lost the ball on a sack and, yes, Cook was out of the game and Seattle was rolling. But this wasn’t a night where the Seahawks has the 12th man creating the type of noise that is usually present in CenturyLink Field. The pandemic meant the stadium was empty and calm. Only there was nothing calm about the Vikings’ approach.

Minnesota got the ball back and Cousins immediately threw an interception on a pass intended for Justin Jefferson. This one was picked off by Wright at the Vikings’ 36 and returned to the 29. Seattle running back Chris Carson took the first-down handoff and went 29 yards for a touchdown drive that lasted seven seconds and gave Seattle a 21-13 lead.

The Vikings would come right back and score on a Cousins to Adam Thielen 3-yard pass, and a 6-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Thielen in the fourth quarter would again give Minnesota the lead. But, ultimately, it was that third quarter meltdown by the Vikings that prevented them from leaving Seattle with the upset and a 2-3 record with the chance to go to .500 next Sunday against an Atlanta Falcons club that fired its general manager (Thomas Dimitroff) and coach (Dan Quinn) on Sunday night after an 0-5 start.

The fact the Vikings melted down when it mattered most shouldn’t have come as a shock. The point has been made here on several occasions that this isn’t that good of team and several key members of Zimmer’s defense are going to have to continue to grow and learn through their mistakes. That includes nearly every cornerback who saw extensive playing time on Sunday. The highlight of Sunday’s game from the Vikings standpoint might have been seeing linebacker Eric Wilson have easily the best game of his NFL career.

The problem, and it’s not going to change, is that the one position where you would have liked to have seen a calm, cool and collected approach as things began to spiral out of control was at quarterback. Cousins is in his ninth NFL season and is eating up $21 million of the Vikings’ salary-cap this season. That means that when things went wrong on Sunday, the Vikings should have been able to look at their quarterback for guidance and reassurance that he wouldn’t let victory slip away.

Cousins will be given credit for leading the eventual comeback that fell short, but what if he hadn’t played a role in losing the lead? The fact he did didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Just as it didn’t come as a surprise that when winning time rolled around it was Wilson who walked off the field with another comeback victory on his resume.