"They wanted it more tonight," Peterson said after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored the final 14 points of a 24-20 victory before a stunned Metrodome crowd. The Bucs had stormed back from a 17-0 halftime deficit, blistering the Vikings for 273 yards and 16 first downs on only 30 plays over that time period.
The implication from Peterson, and a few other Vikings players, was that the team somehow didn't match the mythical energy the Buccaneers brought from the halftime locker room.
Said defensive end Jared Allen: "We must have rested on our laurels."
Receiver Percy Harvin: "We didn't play 60 minutes and our record shows it."
I understand why a player would instinctively reach for that explanation, but strongly disagree that it was behind the Vikings' second-half collapse. From my vantage point, at least, this game wasn't decided on effort. If we can say anything definitive about the 2011 Vikings, it's that they are constructed with absolutely no margin for error and few alternatives with which to juggle the momentum swings of a typical NFL game.
Through two weeks, at least, the Vikings (0-2) have been intent on controlling the ball on offense and limiting exposure for their defense. When that works, you're up 17-0 at halftime. But when the slightest issue goes awry, you're left incapable of covering for it elsewhere. To date, the Vikings haven't demonstrated a quick-strike mentality, or capability, on either side of the ball.
The Vikings are like an old-school locomotive amid a fleet of F-16's. Loaded full of coal, they can start smoothly and pick up steam on the track. Knock it ever so softly off its tracks, however, and its stuck in mud while the rest of the NFL zooms by.
"This," quarterback Donovan McNabb said, "is a game we should have won. No doubt about it."
For that to happen, however, the Vikings would have needed their low risk, low-reward approach to continue producing flawlessly. In rolling up their big first-half lead, the Vikings put together three long and time-consuming drives. Using Peterson and a passing game that almost exclusively relied on fake runs, they went 90 yards on 12 plays, 82 yards on 14 plays and 75 yards on eight plays.
McNabb threw for 153 yards in the first half, most of which came on low-risk bootlegs and screen plays. Relying on power running and a short passing game decreases your total number of possessions, placing a premium on scoring a touchdown after every drive.
The Vikings, however, had one possession stall at the Buccaneers' 4-yard line and another at their 11. A touchdown in either instance likely would have given them an insurmountable lead.
"The ability to score a touchdown in the second half really would have changed the course of the game," McNabb said.
As it turned out, however, the Bucs spread out their offense in the fourth quarter much like they did at the end of their Week 1 loss to the Detroit Lions. Over the final nine minutes and 41 seconds, they put together scoring drives of 80 and 61 yards. Receiver Aurelius Benn caught a 25-yard touchdown pass for one score, and LeGarrette Blount scored from four yards out for the winner with 31 seconds remaining.
Successful NFL teams have the capability to score an easy touchdown every now and then. The Vikings piled up 398 yards Sunday, but they never came close to scoring from outside the red zone. Peterson compiled 120 yards on 25 carries, but both of his scores came from inside the 10-yard line. The Vikings had hoped to jump to an early lead and then ride Peterson to victory, but there were too many times in the second half when just handing it to Peterson to grind out the clock wasn't good enough.
On a first-and-goal at the Bucs' 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, Peterson lost a yard. That put McNabb in an undesirable position to throw consecutive passes, both of which fell incomplete.
Later in the quarter, McNabb faced a third-and-6 from his 26-yard line. There was 4:25 left in the game, and a first down would have put the Buccaneers into timeout mode. The Vikings' play call there? A deep pass down the right sideline to reserve receiver Devin Aromashodu, who was blanketed by cornerback E.J. Biggers.
McNabb said afterward that the Vikings' performance on those key plays "is something that will be corrected." But as currently constituted, and with defenses intent on limiting Peterson's potential for a big play, the Vikings will have to be perfect to make it work. Their red-zone touchdown conversion rate was 50 percent Sunday. That's not bad. What the Vikings didn't have Sunday, nor in their Week 1 loss to the San Diego Chargers, is a player in their passing game who can get them an easy touchdown or make the critical third-and-6 catch with the game on the line.
Nor, to this point, have the Vikings had a defensive player step forward to make a game-changing play in the second half. Last week, they committed three encroachment penalties to sustain the Chargers' final possession. On the first of the Bucs' fourth-quarter scoring drives, the Vikings allowed quarterback Josh Freeman to convert two third-and-1 plays with 2-yard scrambles. On the next possession, Freeman sat in the pocket and completed seven of eight passes before Blount's game-winning romp.
We know that defensive tackle Kevin Williams was completing his two-game suspension. That left Allen, who had one sack and three quarterback hits earlier in the game, and linebacker Chad Greenway as the only potential playmakers on the field. Neither stepped up.
"I don't know what happened," Allen said. "I'm trying to find a positive word to use. I don't really have one. You look at it, and they had one big run [Blount's 27-yard score in the third quarter] and one big pass. But they kicked the crap out of us in the second half, and that sucks, because we were dominating the first half."
One big run and one big pass was all it really took to knock the Vikings of the tracks. They didn't stop playing hard. They didn't make a ton of mistakes. They just fell off the narrow wire they've given themselves to maneuver. I consider it a crisis of construction, not performance or attitude.