Frustrated Vikings lament inability to win the close ones

BALTIMORE (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings used a series of big plays to charge to a 14-point lead, an advantage due in part to the play of a defense that prevented versatile Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson from getting comfortable in the pocket or running with any measure of success.

After rookie Kene Nwangwu took the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards to the end zone to make it 24-10, it was looking like this game would enable Minnesota to turn around a season defined by close defeats and an alarming failure to finish off the opposition.

Alas, the Vikings ended up fading miserably in the second half. They ultimately dropped a 34-31 decision to Baltimore on Sunday. Not long after Ravens star kicker Justin Tucker drilled a 36-yard field goal with 16 seconds left in overtime, the Vikings and coach Mike Zimmer faced a barrage of questions that surely sounded all too familiar.

So, what can a team do to get back on track after losing five games — two in overtime — by a total of 18 points?

“Losing in the league, it’s frustrating because we work so hard each and every week to get ready for the football game,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “It’s frustrating. We can’t tuck our tails today. We’ve got a resilient group in that locker room. Just speaking on the guys that I know, we’re a bunch of fighters. So, we’re going to keep on fighting.”

It was hard to imagine another close loss would come out of a game in which Cook set up an early touchdown with a 66-yard run after Justin Jefferson scored on a 50-yard pass from Kirk Cousins. Late in the first half, Jackson was 6 for 14 for 56 yards and an interception.

But Jackson and the Ravens got a late touchdown before halftime and controlled the ball and the clock in the second half, scoring three straight TDs to take a 31-24 lead. Cousins put together the game-tying touchdown drive in the waning minutes of regulation, and an interception by Anthony Barr in overtime gave Minnesota the ball with a chance to win.

“We didn’t do good,” Zimmer conceded. “We had a chance to put the game away after the turnover, and we couldn’t get it done.”

After taking over at the Minnesota 38, the Vikings went three-and-out and punted. That led to a 72-yard drive by Baltimore preceding Tucker’s winning kick.

The Ravens made a whopping 25 first downs after halftime and Jackson threw for over 200 yards over that span. Baltimore ended up holding the ball twice as long as the Vikings after owning only a two-minute advantage over the opening 30 minutes.

“They have an extra guy when he’s running the ball,” Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said, referring to Jackson. “We really did well on pass defense in the first half, and they came out in the second half and said, ‘We’re going to run the ball.’”

And they did. The Ravens finished with 247 yards rushing, led by Jackson with 120.

“We were winning the game early and we were winning the game most of the time,” Kendricks noted. “We’ve got to finish. We didn’t finish again. When we find ourselves in these close games we’ve got to win, and we’re not making it happen.”

The defense played without safety Harrison Smith, who went on the COVID-19 list before the game and is also expected to miss next week’s matchup against the Chargers.

“He is a big part of our defense. He’s our leader out there, our field general,” Kendricks said.

What the Vikings really missed, however, was that one finishing blow that has been so darn elusive for much of the season.

“We’re losing these really tight games over and over,” Kendricks said. “But at some point, it’s going to turn, you know? We battle every day. It’s just unfortunate when this keeps happening … We have to start putting this all together.”

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