CINCINNATI — Truthfully, the writing was on the wall from the very beginning.
As the Vikings lined up for their first play of the season, fullback C.J. Ham got whistled for a false start. The rest of the opening drive featured a false start from tight end Tyler Conklin, another false start from Ham, and for good measure, a holding penalty on right guard Oli Udoh before, mercifully, the Vikings punted the ball away.
Not a good start for the Vikings, and it got worse from there, highlighted by star running back Dalvin Cook fumbling away the ball in overtime as Minnesota worked its way downfield for a possible winning score. Add it all up and the Vikings left Paul Brown Stadium with a 27-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
As soon as Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson’s 33-yard field goal split the uprights in overtime, the Vikings retreated to the locker room hanging their heads, left to lament what could have been had they not made mistake after mistake throughout the game.
“It’s a gut-wrenching loss,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce. “They are a good, young team. But I feel like we gave this one away.”
It’s hard not to feel that way after the Vikings ended the afternoon with 12 penalties for 116 yards. That concerning stat leveled the playing field, consistently putting the Vikings behind the down and distance markers, while simultaneously gifting the Bengals solid starting field position.
“Just way too many mistakes,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It was very disappointing. Then we got a chance to rally and come back, win the game, and we fumble the football (in overtime) and give up a fourth-and-inches throw. We have a lot of work to do. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
For the Vikings, maybe the most frustrating part of the loss was the fact that they were still so close to victory despite their sloppy play. There were some positives, starting with Cousins continuing to find success throwing the ball to Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
“I think definitely an emphasis this week is, ‘Hey, if we play clean football, we can move the ball all day,’ ” Thielen said. “But when we start drives first-and-20, second-and-20, third-and-20 — I think we averaged third-and-20 in the first half, or something like that — we can’t win football games doing that.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the Vikings took a 7-0 lead when Cousins found Thielen for a 5-yard touchdown pass midway through the second quarter.
That seemed to light a fire under Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft started to heat up shortly before halftime. It started with a masterful drive in which he converted a couple of third downs, then found receiver Tee Higgins for a 2-yard touchdown pass to tie the score 7-7.
Less than a minute later, the Vikings went three-and-out, and the Bengals got the ball back. Not surprisingly, Burrow made them pay by finding rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase up the right sideline for a 50-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead shortly before intermission.
“Not only do we want to get points, we certainly want to run out the clock so that they can’t get the ball back and do what they did,” Cousins said. “That was one of the ones where we can and will need to be better.”
The uphill climb got even steeper after halftime as the Vikings allowed the Bengals to march down the field on the opening drive of the third quarter before running back Joe Mixon plowed his way into the end zone to stretch the lead to 21-7.
Though that looked like the beginning of the end for the Vikings, Bengals coach Zach Taylor almost single-handedly kept Minnesota in the game. Despite dominating in nearly every facet of the game, and leading by two touchdowns late in the third quarter, Taylor made the baffling decision to go for it on fourth-and-short from his own 30-yard line.
It didn’t work, and the Vikings got the ball back in prime scoring position. Asked if he was surprised the Bengals went for it in that spot, Zimmer replied, “Umm, yeah. That was good for us.”
Indeed. A few plays later, Cousins found Thielen for a 24-yard TD pass to cut the deficit to 21-14.
After a 53-yard field goal from McPherson made it 24-14, the Vikings showed some impressive mettle down the stretch, getting a big gain from Jefferson, then a 1-yard TD run from Cook to make it 24-21. The comeback culminated with a 53-yard field goal from kicker Greg Joseph to tie the score 24-24 as regulation time expired.
In overtime, the Vikings were driving, and it looked like Joseph might get a chance to kick the winning field goal on top of his game-tying field goal that sent the game to overtime. Instead, Cook fumbled the ball near midfield, Burrow found tight end C.J. Uzomah for a big gain on fourth-and-inches a few plays, setting up McPherson for his 33-yard field to end the game.
“He’s going to be hard on himself,” Thielen said of Cook before trying to absolve him of any guilt. “There were plenty of mistakes. That’s the tough part of this game is usually people look at the last play of the game. But there’s plenty of things that lost us that football game. It wasn’t that one thing.”
No, it most certainly was not.