Shortly after the Vikings’ 14-7 loss to the Browns on Sunday — his team’s third one-score loss in four weeks — coach Mike Zimmer responded to a reporter’s question by paraphrasing the speech he’d just given his players in the locker room.
“Like I told the team, I’ve been doing this 27 years, I know good teams and I know bad teams,” he said. “I know this team has a chance to be pretty darn good. We may not look like it right now because we’re 1-3, but even like [Browns coach] Kevin [Stefanski] said to me before the game, ‘You got a really good football team here.’ And they do, too. They were just a little bit better than us [Sunday].”
Were Zimmer looking for precedent to support his thesis, he could point to 2017 and 2019, when the Vikings failed to reach 10 points in Week 4 losses that appeared they could derail the season and went on to make the playoffs both times. He could also point to the fact the Vikings, who have a plus-2 point differential through four weeks, were one of only six teams since 2016 to start the season 1-3 despite outscoring opponents.
Asked why he remains optimistic about the 2021 Vikings, though, Zimmer simply cited his coaching experience.
“I feel fine about it. I feel fine,” he said said. “You guys worry so much about stats and not about how things look and how things are. Now we gave up a 30-yard run on [third-and-20] in the two-minute drill. I’m disgusted about that, yeah, but for the most part, there were a lot of good things that were happening.”
After the Vikings marched 75 yards for a game-opening touchdown, though, too few of those good things happened in the final 52 minutes of a game that seemed within reach all day.
Despite a raft of missed throws from quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Browns did just enough to get past the Vikings, who gave up a pair of scoring drives before halftime for the third time in four weeks and could not score in the second half. Their seven points were their fewest since a Week 4 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field in 2019.
The Vikings had 255 yards of offense, their worst since a Week 2 loss to Indianapolis last year. Dalvin Cook — who’d been questionable to play because of a right ankle injury — had only 11 touches that gained 44 yards, and the Vikings gained only 65 on 23 rushing attempts.
Cleveland’s pass rush breached the Vikings’ line throughout the game, sacking Kirk Cousins twice and pressuring him into his worst game of the season. The quarterback completed only 20 of his 38 attempts, throwing his first interception of the year on a deep ball to Adam Thielen he said he fired in an effort to make something happen for a stagnant offense.
“I knew it was going to be an opportunity ball. I knew I was forcing it a little bit,” Cousins said of the pass grabbed by Browns corner Greedy Williams with 6:08 to play. “It felt like with how we had been doing all day, it was worth a shot. … Adam was frustrated with himself, I’m frustrated with myself.
“Just want to find a way to be able to — in those one-on-one situations, put it up on a day where we’re having a hard time moving the football; maybe create something there, put it up and make a big play. We both know we can do that, so we’re just going to try to find a way to make it happen.”
The turnover was only the second of the year for the Vikings; they would get two more chances to tie the score after Stefanski let Mayfield throw deep three times on plays that might have put it away. Mayfield missed all three throws, including a ball that went behind Odell Beckham Jr. after the receiver used a double move to get open against Harrison Smith.
Mayfield finished only 15 of 33 for 155 yards, but the Browns’ running game — a staple of Stefanski’s offense since Cleveland hired him away from the Vikings — posted 184 yards, doing most of the work on the three scoring drives that would ultimately decide the game.
Stefanski ran Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt 12 times on an 18-play drive that gave the Browns their first touchdown, two series after a trip to the red zone had ended with an Everson Griffen fourth-down sack.
It appeared the Vikings might have another fourth-down stop when Mayfield threw incomplete from the Minnesota 3, but officials called Eric Kendricks for defensive holding when Donovan Peoples-Jones put a double move on the linebacker and Kendricks placed a hand on the receiver’s hip.
Hunt punched the ball in from the 1, and the scoring march forced the Vikings to use all of their timeouts in an effort to get the ball back. When the Browns lined up for a game-tying extra point, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson signaled for a timeout, apparently thinking the Vikings had 12 men on the field. The Vikings didn’t have a timeout left, and after a delay-of-game penalty, Mayfield hit Andy Janovich for a two-point conversion.
“Apparently somebody was in there, and so one of our guys called a timeout,” Zimmer said. “Which, no one should call a timeout but me. So that was a mistake that we made.”
The Vikings got the ball back with 1:16 left in the half, went three-and-out (in part because of an Ezra Cleveland false start), and punted back to the Browns. Stefanski called a draw for Hunt that went for 33 yards on third-and-20, setting up a field goal before halftime on a drive that might otherwise have ended without points.
Griffen said the Vikings were expecting a pass, “but they called a good play, and they hit us good.”
Those scores, and a Chase McLaughlin field goal, were enough for the Browns to win by seven on a day where the Vikings followed their opening TD drive with nine possessions that ended in punts, Cousins’ interception or a turnover on downs. Their 10th and final attempt for a second score ended with a third-down pass that fell flat in the end zone as time ran out.
“In today’s NFL, typically if you hold them to 20 or less, you’ve probably got a chance to win,” Zimmer said. “It used to be, when I first got in the league, the goal was always 17. But this is a team game. Offense didn’t lose this today and the defense didn’t lose the game. We all lost the game.”