FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1) are still alive in the NFC playoff picture after a 24-10 loss to the New England Patriots, but there’s one thing that continues to elude them: Beating a team with a winning record.
Losses by the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers before kickoff at Gillette Stadium presented the Vikings with an opportunity to gain important ground in the NFC North and wild-card playoff race. Instead, Minnesota added to a day of defeat for each team in the division. The NFC North has gone 0-4 two just other times since conference realignment 16 years ago: Week 16 in 2013 and Week 15 in 2009.
With four games remaining, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer isn’t panicked about the chances to finish the season strong. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Minnesota still has a 67 percent chance to make the playoffs.
"I feel fine about my team," Zimmer said. "I think we continue to learn a lot about ourselves. I think we got a good football team, we just got to play better than we did tonight. This one game won’t define us."
But the road to the postseason has been paved with heavy barricades in recent weeks. Since Week 8, the Vikings have lost to the Saints, Bears and Patriots – three teams well on their way to the playoffs. Next week they travel to Seattle, another team eyeing a spot in the NFC playoffs. With Chicago losing to the Giants in Week 13, the Vikings squandered an opportunity to make up ground in the division race, but many aren’t overly concerned about where they could be seeded in January.
"I know it’s important that we just get in," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I’d love a home playoff game, but if we can get in, anything can happen. That’s really where my focus is."
It’s the way the Vikings lost to the Patriots that has to be frustrating. It wasn’t just the fact that Minnesota was dealing with an injured secondary with Xavier Rhodes (hamstring), who Zimmer chose to rotate every other series to avoid re-injury, or the fact that the Vikings lost Trae Waynes to a second-quarter concussion and were down to rookie Holton Hill and veteran Marcus Sherels, who hasn’t played consistent snaps at cornerback since 2013.
It wasn’t even an end-zone interception that all but sealed the Vikings' fate in the fourth quarter, halting their chance at a comeback.
The offense’s inability to get in an early rhythm was disappointing for Zimmer, who responded "no" when asked whether he felt his team ran the ball enough, something he’s stressed a need for week after week. Dalvin Cook had nine carries for 84 yards, but the Vikings were unable to generate a consistent rushing attack.
"It’s hard to call a run on second-and-20 because you’re basically going to be looking at third-and-15 most of the time, and that’s not a place you want to be," Cousins said. "So that’s where it became more of a drop-back game, and I don’t know if that’s the game we wanted to play from the start."
Once the Patriots went up 10-0 with 8:16 to play in the first half, history was working against the Vikings. According to ESPN Stats & Information, New England has a 100-2 record when leading by double digits at home since 2001.
Zimmer said this week that one of the strongest elements of a Bill Belichick-coached team is its ability to beat its opponent by making them play left-handed. The Patriots were able to do that by taking away Minnesota’s best weapons. Wide receiver Adam Thielen didn’t record his first catch until the end of the second quarter (a 5-yard touchdown, the Vikings' only TD of the game). Stefon Diggs, who played despite dealing with a knee injury, was held to five catches for 49 yards.
"A lot of times they had guys on both sides of me and a few times they had one guy on me, but nothing different than we’ve seen in the past weeks," Thielen said. "They didn’t let me get going."
Added Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore on his ability to contain Diggs: "He caught one real pass. The other ones were screens. An offensive tackle blocked me."
One decision by Zimmer allowed the Vikings to grab back momentum and stay alive.
Toward the end of the first half, Zimmer challenged a first-down ruling on a completion from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski. After winning the challenge, the Vikings' defense forced a critical stop on third down and gave its offense a chance to score some points before halftime.
Cousins orchestrated an effective two-minute drive, capped by his first completion to Thielen, the aforementioned score. Had kicker Dan Bailey not missed a 48-yard field goal earlier in the game, Minnesota would have gone into halftime tied 10-10.
The Vikings ended up evening things out in the third quarter when Bailey drilled a 39-yard field goal because of two apparent non-pass interference calls on plays to Thielen and Aldrick Robinson in the end zone that stalled the Vikings' drive.
"Those are plays that could go either way," Thielen said. "As a competitor, you want that call."
But after that, Brady went into Mr. December mode, orchestrating two scoring drives en route to his 59th career win in the 12th month of the year.
Sensing a perfect opportunity to pick apart a depleted Vikings secondary, Brady keyed in on Sherels on the Patriots' first drive of the third quarter and threw four consecutive completions on a 75-yard drive in 1:45, capped off with a 24-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon. It was Brady’s 508th career touchdown, which tied Brett Favre for the third-most all time.
The Patriots scored again on the Vikings' defense late in the fourth quarter. The Vikings' stout third-down defense allowed seven conversions on 14 attempts, many of which came on third-and-short. But it was the defense’s struggles tackling that showed up most in the box score.
Brady averaged 3.8 air yards per attempt, his lowest since ESPN began tracking air yards in 2006. However, he still passed for over 300 yards because his receivers piled up a season-high 232 yards after the catch. James White was particularly effective, with 101 yards after the catch (92 receiving yards total).
The Vikings dropped a chance to grab an important win over a quality opponent, but their next opportunity isn’t far away. Minnesota goes coast to coast in back-to-back weeks and will play the Seahawks on Monday Night Football in Week 14, one of its last chances to beat a team with a winning record -- and another team fighting for its playoff life.