Drop a generous tear of condolence today for the Minnesota Vikings after the bizarre events of the final minutes Sunday in the snow, rain and slop in Baltimore.
Never mind their 29-26 defeat, their ninth in 13 games. Ask yourself a question: “Have you ever seen anything more loopy in a football game?
At the finish, there were touchdowns galore — five of them in just over two minutes. You would have sworn they were falling out of the deranged Maryland sky, except that the sky was already pre-empted by snow, sleet, rain and miscellaneous crud.
Facing the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens and with little to salvage from a dismal season, the Vikings played it hard and relentlessly from end to end, if without a trace of luck when the game turned. It was one thing to lose their best offensive weapon when Adrian Peterson sprained an ankle early in the game. But what boggled all available mathematicians Sunday were the final moments when the teams combined for five touchdowns in exactly 125 seconds.
Five touchdowns! If at home you needed the necessary room anywhere in the middle of the action, you missed half the scoring. For a team like the Vikings, which had already lost eight games out of 12, the loss was hardly a shock. But nobody could have guessed that the game would become all but historic in its swarm of touchdowns at the finish.
It had all of the dicey elements of those pick-up basketball games of “horse” familiar in a thousand gymnasiums: “This one’s left handed with two feet in the air. Match it.” In Baltimore Sunday, somebody always did.
It broke out innocently enough after Joe Flacco had given the Ravens a 7-0 lead in the first quarter with a 1-yard pass to Ed Dickson. Blair Walsh countered with a pair of Viking field goals to send the teams ultimately into the fourth quarter with Baltimore leading 7-6.
Adrian Peterson was out of the game by then, replaced by a very adequate Toby Gerhart, who was to electrify his team by racing 41 yards to score in the fourth quarter to give the Vikings a very temporary 19-15 lead with a little more than a minute remaining.
But by then, the minutes were lasting forever.
With the Vikings trailing 7-6 to open the fourth quarter, Matt Cassel — who just may be the answer to the Vikings’ quarterback quandary at least for the rest of the year — hit Jerome Simpson with an 8-yard scoring pass. Vikings lead 12-7.
A few minutes later, it got to be pretty hysterical. Joe Flacco hits Dennis Pitta with a 1-yard scoring pass, putting Baltimore ahead 15-12. A few moments later, Gerhart made his run, making it 19-15 for Minnesota.
Then the Vikings kicked off, and Jacoby Jones grabbed the ball and barreled 77 yards to give Baltimore a 22-19 lead. So was it all over right there?
Be serious. The Vikings still had 45 seconds left. Matt Cassel wound up, threw to the emerging rookie star Cordarrelle Patterson racing down field, and the play went 79 yards for a touchdown and a 26-22 Viking lead.
By all that’s fair and holy, the game should have been over with the Vikings winning. Right?
Don’t be naïve. The rules say you have to kick off. And with four seconds showing on the clock, Joe Flacco hit Marlon Brown with a 9-yard pass in the back of the end zone, and the scoring was over.
But for the Vikings, there were fresh discoveries of the potential of some of their young players, especially the multitalented Patterson, who is swiftly developing into a triple threat as a receiver, a kickoff returner and, here and there, a running back lining up with the quarterback.
Years ago, the dismal weather would have been roundly embraced by the Viking teams of antiquity, in the era when the Vikings played in the frostbite purgatory of the old Metropolitan Stadium. There the visiting teams spent their most belligerent moments fighting with each other for access to the hot-air heaters, which were forbidden on the Viking bench by the open air zealot, Bud Grant.
But Sunday they played the game in Baltimore in the sleet and slush and the shifts in fortune, which put the game in the hands of the officials as much as the athletes — to the obvious displeasure of the Viking coach and his players.
When it was over, Leslie Frazier, clearly was offended by a couple of the officiating calls in the climactic moments. But he stopped short of any involved second-guessing. He said he was proud of the way his team performed, especially some of the young players in the Viking secondary when injuries began depleting the defensive backs.
He obviously was aware of what a healthy Adrian Peterson might have meant to his team. Peterson, who had carried the ball just seven times for 13 yards before the injury, was wheeled from the field. He did return to the Viking bench as a spectator and added moral support in the second half.
Gerhart scarcely weakened the Vikings’ running game as a replacement, gaining 89 yards in 15 carries. But no replacement for Peterson can force defenses into the kind of paranoia that the future Hall of Famer provokes.
And he would have been especially valuable in dictating the defensive alignments that are pre-occupied with Peterson and would have given Cassel a wider range of downfield receiving routes with the star running back preoccupying the defense. Under the conditions, Cassel quarterbacked more than adequately, hitting 17 out of 38 passing attempts for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
But Flacco’s three touchdown passes ultimately proved the difference.
When it was over, Leslie Frazier struggled, although not very hard, to conceal his conviction that some of the officiating was loose. A few times blatantly loose. But in the end, he spent more time saluting his team.
His players weren’t as charitable as the coach in blasting the officials for what they saw as a sloppy and one-sided lean in how they called the game.
“They [the Vikings] played hard,” Frazier said. “Both teams did, fighting to get a win.”
He said he saw pass interference on his receivers that should have been called. He praised his team for its effort and some of the younger players in the secondary for elevating their play. He didn’t dwell on the loss his team’s offense absorbed when Peterson went down early in the game; but clearly, he said, it was a critical loss.
He also praised Toby Gerhart for his strong performance replacing Adrian and for his all-around play. What was just as heartening was the performance of some of the Vikings’ younger players, especially the defensive backs, typically Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook, who had played miserably just a week before. In the clutch, the veterans Chad Greenway and Jared Allen held the defense together. None of that happened to be enough.
For the Vikings, now standing at 3-9-1, Philadelphia is next, at the Metrodome Sunday. After that, Cincinnati and, finally, Detroit.
And still nobody knows for certain who will be coaching the Vikings next year, or quarterbacking the Vikings next year — or what will happen next December in the Vikings stopgap open-air stadium if the temperature matches Sunday’s nippy levels in the Twin Cities.
But it can’t be bad enough for the Vikings to long for another Sunday in Baltimore.