Vikings need to find a fix or be doomed for early playoff exit

MINNEAPOLIS -- The mood in the visitors' locker room following the Minnesota Vikings' 37-30 loss in Seattle didn't reek of despair. There was no sense of panic as players tried to digest how they went from a fairly dominant first half to a third-quarter collapse to not being able to finish their late-game comeback.

Minnesota's fourth loss doesn't put a fork in its postseason chances. There are four games left, and the Vikings (8-4) are in control of their destiny.

But this was a flat-out missed opportunity to assert some dominance in the NFC playoff picture. If the Vikings handle their business these final four games, there’s a chance that they'll get a do-over against a Seahawks team that has been a giant encumbrance in the Mike Zimmer era.

"I just hope everybody in this locker room holds their heads high knowing that we could be back here again in a month, and we played one of the best teams in the NFC tonight, and we shot ourselves in the foot too many times," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "If we just execute better and not hurt ourselves -- penalties, turnovers -- play cleaner football, then we've got a chance."

The Seahawks (10-2) are positioning themselves to earn a first-round bye. If the playoffs started today, the chance to right the ship in Seattle would come only if Minnesota won on wild-card weekend and advanced to the divisional round.

Even though the loss is "not the end of the world," according to Zimmer, there’s a sobering reality that if the Vikings don’t fix the areas that have routinely been issues this season in wins and losses, then they might not get out of the first round.

There are problems across the board that have been mitigated at times this season by one area of the team bailing out the other.

In Week 7 against the Detroit Lions, Marvin Jones Jr.'s annihilation of Minnesota’s secondary (four touchdown catches) was outdone by Kirk Cousins' 337 passing yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions and a 141.1 rating in the Vikings' 42-30 victory.

In Week 10 at Dallas, questionable Cowboys coaching decisions to run Ezekiel Elliott on back-to-back plays late in the game (after Minnesota eliminated him early) put the Vikings' defense out of the line of fire from a Dak Prescott comeback in a 28-24 victory.

The Vikings’ historic come-from-behind win against the Broncos in Week 11 wiped out a first-half performance that exposed weaknesses on all sides.

How much longer can these gaffes keep occurring before they put a dagger in the Vikings' season?

Minnesota's three fumbles in Seattle -- two by Dalvin Cook and one by C.J. Ham that ended the Vikings' chance at a comeback -- played a big part in giving the Seahawks the upper hand.

"I hold myself 1,000 percent responsible for not turning the ball over," said Cook, whose turnovers were the byproduct of his getting injured on both plays. "I pride myself on not turning the ball over. I can’t put myself in that situation when I turn the ball over. And that’s what they pride themselves on. You can’t give them gimmes. And I gave them a gimme before the half. I’ve got to take care of the football, and I think we’ll be all right."

But there are deeper issues than ball security. Defensively, Minnesota is in a tough spot. Parts of Zimmer’s once-vaunted unit appear to have regressed and been figured out. The latter was apparent in Seattle.

The Seahawks scored 27 of their 37 points in the second half, which was the second-most points allowed by the Vikings' defense after halftime under Zimmer. The Vikings set a season worst in points, rushing yards (218) and rushing touchdowns allowed (two). Seattle’s 143 rushing yards before contact were a season high, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It was also the most allowed by the Vikings since Week 14, 2018, against Seattle (157 YBC).

Minnesota entered Week 13 with the fifth-best run defense. Even Zimmer was surprised by how much the Seahawks tested that area throughout the game.

"A little bit," Zimmer said. "I thought they would be throwing the ball a bit more than they did, what they've done in the past. They stuck with it a lot more than I thought."

What’s jarring is that Seattle knew just how easily it could expose this area, given what the Seahawks saw repeatedly from the start.

"We were able to run the ball extremely well," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. "They kept playing two high shell, just super deep. They didn’t want any shots thrown on them. So we said, OK, and we’ll just run it and do what we do really well."

In effect, the Vikings tried to compensate for their biggest weakness -- the play of their cornerbacks against the pass by putting safety help over the top -- and ended up hurting themselves elsewhere.

The regression of cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been well-documented this season, but at this point, his play is proving to be an all-out liability. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Wilson went 5-of-5 for 105 yards and a 60-yard touchdown pass when Rhodes was the nearest defender on Monday. Rhodes has allowed the highest completion percentage as a nearest defender in the NFL this season.

Zimmer has continually backed Rhodes despite his struggles, but with four games remaining and the stakes increasing weekly, there needs to come a point of reckoning.

If things continue, Minnesota is foreshadowing its own first-round exit.