John Shipley: Vikings take a step backward

John Shipley: Vikings take a step backward

The Vikings replaced their long snapper before Sunday afternoon’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, and Andrew DePaola was so solid that no one noticed him.

Not surprisingly, Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer didn’t have much to say about DePaola after a 31-28 loss. Asked if the veteran,- signed this week to the practice squad and promoted before kickoff, might permanently replace Austin Cutting on punts and field-goal tries, Zimmer replied, “I don’t know.”

Why would he? In the wake of his team’s first loss in more than a month, Zimmer had conspicuous players doing conspicuous things on his mind:

— Cornerback Chris Jones not so much missing a tackle as ignoring one on a go-ahead, 42-yard touchdown run by the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard in the second half.

— Cornerback Kris Boyd negating a successful fake punt because he was waving to the punter, then getting penalized for a block in the back (!) on the ensuing punt.

— Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook losing fumbles that led to Cowboys scores.

— Eight penalties for 80 yards.

“We had our opportunities,” Zimmer said. “We made too many mistakes.”

So much for the playoffs.

The dream isn’t officially over, but it’s down on one knee. The Vikings didn’t have to run the table to advance to expanded playoffs that likely will take eight teams from each conference, but losing to Dallas wasn’t part of the equation. When the optimists pointed to the “soft schedule” Minnesota could ride into the postseason, they were looking squarely at the Cowboys.

Until Sunday, Dallas was winless and averaged 10.25 points a game since losing star quarterback Dak Prescott to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. But they were a different team on Sunday.

It happens. Some of you may remember a Vikings team that started the season 1-5, then went to Green Bay and beat the Packers. But when the Vikings went on to drill Detroit and, more impressively, beat the Bears in Chicago, it appeared the team was moving in the right direction.

They might still be; learning is sometimes ugly, and there are some promising players getting big-boy snaps right now. But it would be dishonest to pretend the Vikings didn’t take a step backward on Sunday.

When Minnesota drilled Detroit 34-20 three weeks ago, they were the tighter, smarter team (despite two blocked punts). On Sunday, they made enough unforced errors to waste a 115-yard rushing game from Dalvin Cook, 123 receiving yards and two touchdowns from Adam Thielen, and one of Kirk Cousins’ better games — 22 of 30 for 314 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I really felt like we were going to win the ballgame throughout the whole course of the game,” Zimmer said.

A lot of us did, brother. A lot of us did. But at crunch time, Dallas played better.

Minnesota had two chances at interceptions during Dallas’ last touchdown drive but couldn’t haul them in. And as good as Cousins, Cook and Thielen were, the Vikings’ last chance went nowhere. They had 1:37 to drive 75 yards for the winning score but didn’t gain a yard, losing the ball on downs when Cousins’ fourth-and-6 pass bounced off the hand of a sliding Thielen.

“Still a lot of football to be played, but we have to bounce back quickly and get back on track,” Cousins said.

Now it’s Dallas that appears to have a chance to make the playoffs, not because they appear to be getting better, but because with Sunday’s win, every team in the NFC East has three victories. The Vikings (4-6) still have math on their side, but the way they played Sunday doesn’t bode well.

There has been improvement, but that defense is just too young and too banged up, the learning curve too high.

But, hey, maybe they found their long snapper.

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