ESPN’s Football Power Index still gives the Vikings a 71 percent chance to make the postseason, likely as the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs, because of the help they received in the standings from losses by the Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14.
But make no mistake, the way the Vikings (6-6-1) performed in yet another crucial game appears to foreshadow what’s in store down the line: one step closer to an early exit in January.
So far this season, the Vikings have done very little to prove they’re legitimate contenders for a deep postseason run. They’re now 0-5-1 against teams that enter the game .500 or better and 6-1 versus teams that have a .500 or worse record.
The way they lost in Seattle, largely because of an offense that crashed and burned from the first drive of the game, is among the litany of issues that could bite them in the postseason.
So how do they fix it?
"That's a good question," coach Mike Zimmer said. "Keep at it. Keep trying to find things that we're good at. We didn't score very many points tonight, didn't score very many points last week. Part of it is being better on third downs; we haven't really done a good job there. Part of it is being better in the red zone; had the ball on the 2-yard line, didn't score. You keep doing things like that, you're not going to score too many points."
Zimmer has been adamant that the Vikings achieve more balance offensively. But balance (33 passes, 21 runs) was not the issue in Seattle -- it was execution.
Minnesota was 2-for-10 on third down, 0-for-2 on fourth down and failed to score on four attempts inside the Seattle 4-yard line in the fourth quarter down 6-0. Quarterback Kirk Cousins went 1-of-7 for 2 yards and a sack on third and fourth down Monday. The Vikings had no conversions on their eight dropbacks on third and fourth down in the game, per ESPN Stats & Information.
"There was a couple that we didn't execute well enough, and then there was a couple that we probably could've called something better," Zimmer said.
Cousins is now 0-7 on Monday Night Football, the worst record in MNF history by a starting QB. From the start, the Vikings quarterback was rattled on dropbacks on which he was pressured. In the first half, Cousins was pressured on three of his nine dropbacks but appeared panicked immediately after each snap.
In fact, Cousins had more time to throw in the first half of Monday’s loss -- an average of 3.70 seconds from snap to release on his passes, per NFL Next Gen Stats -- than he had had all season (2.69 seconds on average), but went 4-for-8 for 27 yards in the first two quarters.
It’s part of the issues Cousins and his offensive line have faced all season. While Minnesota's O-line has struggled in protection throughout the 2018 campaign, hobbled by injuries and players being forced to play out of position, Cousins has not been able to overcome what's happening in front of him.
It's something the quarterback reflected on after the game, wondering aloud if he would have found more success hitting his receivers downfield and setting up plays by utilizing his athleticism to combat pressure from the Seahawks' front.
"What I felt coming off the field is there's always a balance, a really hard balance to find between sitting in the pocket, going through your read, staying patient and then getting out of the pocket, giving up on the play and playing off schedule," Cousins said. "And I think that's something I'm going to go back and watch as to when do I want to quit on a play and get out and scramble and try to make something off schedule. I think I have the athleticism to do that. I think that's in my game. I don't think it's something I do a lot of or enough, maybe, and when you have a pass rush like the Seahawks tonight, getting in there and influencing the plays and coverage, that was pretty sound. Maybe there were some times where I could've done that."
And while the line’s struggles have been noted, much of what transpired Monday was a result of Cousins' inability to execute under pressure in the broadest sense. He went 20-for-33 passing for 208 yards, a touchdown and a fumble that resulted in a Seahawks score.
Cousins' fumble that was returned for a score in the fourth quarter was the fourth defensive touchdown scored against the Vikings this season, tied with the Bills for most allowed in the NFL. All four have been off Cousins’ turnovers -- the most on any player's turnovers this season.
Cousins consistently left his two best playmakers wide open. On Minnesota's second drive, the quarterback had his back turned to Adam Thielen, who was free 20 yards downfield, and instead dumped a short pass off behind him to Latavius Murray that went for a 2-yard gain.
It happened again in the third quarter, when Cousins had Stefon Diggs wide open in the flat and instead hit Kyle Rudolph for a 2-yard gain. And it happened again on one of two late chances the Vikings would have in the red zone, set up by the deepest pass Cousins has completed in weeks, a 48-yard bomb to Diggs. But instead of executing his read to Thielen, whose defender had fallen and left the Pro Bowl receiver wide open, Cousins threw a pass to Rudolph in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-1 that was tipped and fell incomplete.
The frustrations on offense amounted to Minnesota’s second consecutive loss and third in the past four games. With three games remaining -- after putting up seven and 10 points, respectively, in back-to-back games -- the Vikings have done little to show that they'll be able to sustain a deep run a month from now when they’re pitted against the best teams in the NFC.
"It's tough," Diggs said. "Defense, we've got to have their back, we've got to score points, and we've got to move the ball. We've got to stay on schedule. We can't get behind the chains. Same s--- every week, the simple things and the details of it, we can't get behind the sticks."
Added Cousins: "I don't know what the scale [of frustration] is for that level, but certainly when you're not putting as many points on the board as you know you're capable of or you've shown in past games, it's disappointing," Cousins said. "I think the added piece of the disappointment is when your defense is playing so well. Our defense, I feel the last couple weeks or the last several weeks, has played playoff football, high-level football, and put us in a position where we should and can be in the playoff conversation as a result of the way they are playing defense. You know that if our offense would bring it that way that we brought it in the earlier weeks of the season, we would be pretty dangerous."