Convert and win, it was as simple as that.
Up until that point in the game, Vikings running backs had averaged over 5 yards per carry against the Seahawks defense. Alexander Mattison himself had been averaging 5.6 yards per carry. It was almost a sure thing. Still, kick a field goal and extend your lead to 8 forcing Seattle to not only drive the field and score a touchdown with under two-minutes remaining but also to convert a two-point conversion simply to tie, and likely force overtime. But if you fail to convert, well then we’ve got a situation. Yes Seattle still has to drive the field, yes there’s only 1:57 left with one timeout, but now you can lose and that adds a sting to all the potential outcomes that hurts just a little bit more.
Of course, that’s what happened.
It’s all that anybody has been able to talk about since the game culminated last night. Should they have gone for it on fourth down or not? Across the board, the audience is split. Many viewing through the benefit of hindsight, but level headed fans of the team have had some pretty interesting conversations surrounding the team’s decision to go for it.
In the matter of about three minutes of real time, the Minnesota Vikings had to make a decision that very well could have resulted in a turning point for their season. Given the way that a coaching staff is put together and analytics are broken down, here’s a quick look at everything that the Vikings, Mike Zimmer and his entire coaching staff was considering in the heat of those three minutes that resulted in a Vikings loss.
*Spoiler alert, all signs pointed towards going for it on fourth down…
The sky was spitting all night long. It was sprinkling at the beginning of the game, misting throughout and then pouring down in the final minutes of the game. The weather’s impact hadn’t been felt in any large ways until the end of the game, but it was certainly a factor. In fact, I think we saw the weather factor in on a few errant Russell Wilson passes on the Seahawks final drive. Worst case scenario, which we saw, the Seahawks had to travel 94-yards down the field in less than two minutes with a slipper ball being passed and a slippery wet ball being received. The weather was working against Seattle and actually in favor of the Vikings going for it on 4th down.
Momentum is a heckuva thing to try and quantifiably measure, but there’s one thing that’s for sure, at the time of “the decision”, the momentum in that game was certainly in favor of the Minnesota Vikings. After thwarting Seattle’s 21-point push in the third quarter, the Vikings struck back with two straight Adam Thielen touchdowns to take a 26-21 lead with just over 7-minutes left. Minnesota’s defense, which had been giving Russ fits all afternoon, was flying all over the field. They had been stopping Carson in the backfield, containing the explosive nature of the Seahawks passing game and pushing Russell Wilson into positions that he wasn’t comfortable with. And then, one of the most dominant and accurate quarterbacks of the 2020 season threw an interception right into the hands of Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson. Minnesota was in business once again with the football near midfield, a six point lead and less than 6-minutes to go.
And as if it couldn’t get any better for the Vikings, Alexander Mattison had just rattled off runs of 25 yards, 6 yards, 4 yards, 4 yards and Mike Boone sprinkled in a 12-yard run…all of that led up to handing the ball off to your back needing less than one yard to ice the game on the road. They couldn’t stop the VIkings run game most of the night, certainly couldn’t stop them on that final drive…until they did.
The Minnesota Vikings have been a conservative offense all season long. It’s sort of their M.O. Last night was (a little) different thought. From the outset Mike Zimmer was setting a tone.
With Minnesota driving down the field on the first drive of the game, Coach Zimmer set the tone for this fourth quarter decision right then and there. Faced with 4th and 2 yards to gain at the Seattle 36, they went for it and converted on a pass to Justin Jefferson. That drive resulted in a touchdown. On their next drive, they were faced with a 4th and 1 right at midfield and went for it again, this time Dalvin Cook ran for three yards and the first down. That drive resulted in a field goal.
The Vikings had already converted two fourth downs in the game and were set to do it again…but then they didn’t.
The Vikings had the Seahawks on the ropes, literally, figuratively in every sense of the matter. Not only was the momentum going the way of the vikings, but that Seattle defense was GASSED at that moment and they were yielding yards left and right to the Vikings run game.
Remember, Russell Wilson had just thrown a pick so the Seahawks defense was coming off of a long Minnesota Drive, got short rest before the interception and were thrown right back on the field with their backs against the wall. Up until that point Seattle’s defense had yielded more than 10-yards a carry to Mattison and Boone on that final drive. On the evening the Vikings had the ball nearly TWENTY MINUTES MORE in time of possession than did the Seahawks. That means that one of the league’s worst defenses had been on the field TWENTY extra minutes! They were gassed. They couldn’t stop anybody all night long…until that one time when they did.
Even the math told the Vikings that they should have gone for it on fourth down. In an image that was featured by Chris Colinsworth and the Sunday Night Football crew, it was highlighted what the win probability looked like for the Vikings depending on the outcome of that fateful play.
The graphic showcased that at the moment of that decision; two minutes left, up by 6 points, on your opponents 6-yard line, the win probability for the Vikings was all the way to 94%. If they converted the fourth down, that would jump up by 6-points to 100% (which isn’t exactly true, but I digress). If they had chosen to kick the field goal and go up by 8-points that probability would remain unchanged but still at a dominant 94%. But if, if if if, the Seahawks found a way to stop the Vikings and force a turnover on downs, that win probability for Minnesota drops by 15% to 79%. Still very favorable for Minnesota, but less likely than before. If someone told you that you’d have a 4 in 5 chance to win anything, you’d take that chance almost every single time. Unfortunately, last night’s game fell inside that other 20% and Russ daggered the Vikings near the end.
It’s easy to criticize the decision when hindsight is 20/20, but almost everything was pointing the Vikings towards going for it on fourth down. But then everything went wrong. Russell was a sleeping dragon awakened, DK Metcalf went full on beast mode, the Vikings Cover-2 which had largely held Seattle in check all day long was now porous, and all of that said it all came down to one final play in the endzone that didn’t got the way of the Vikings.
Had they converted and won, the decision to go for it would have sparked a more aggressive mindset around this team that fans would have eaten up. But they didn’t and now we sit here and nit-pick every decision that Mike Zimmer has ever made as a head coach and start weighing the value of his employment.
Football is fun, this is one of the reasons we love it, unfortunately this hit a little close to home for Vikings fans and stings a little bit right now.