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Murphy: Vikings loss in Denver was not a crushing blow
Brian Murphy writes that despite a frustrating loss, Vikings fans should still be feeling like the playoffs are in sight
By Brian Murphy
Here’s the thing. If you thought Joshua Dobbs was going to part the sea so the Vikings could carry all that franchise baggage across the desert to Super Bowl LVIII in Vegas then you are the sucker.
This is going to be a grind, folks. Incremental progress bracketed by random mistakes. Big bets cashed in, blown opportunities raked.
You don’t plug-and-play your way into the playoffs without short-circuiting the power grid. Such is the grand and unpredictable experiment Minnesota chose to conduct at quarterback when they traded for Dobbs to salvage a season that seemed lost only to morph into something completely different.
The Vikings were defeated 21-20 Sunday night in Denver, a game they easily could have won but deserved to lose. There is no shame conceding unicorns are fake no matter how real the NFL hype machine makes them seem.
Not only is Dobbs mortal, he is flawed, as any journeyman would be when dropped into a seventh organization in as many years, draped in savior’s robes and declared the feel-good story of 2023.
Flawed as in incomplete. We know all about Dobbs’ diverse skills as a thrower and a runner, not to mention his ability to quickly distill complex information and solve problems. NASA doesn’t just hand out engineering internships at the airport.
But the Vikings and head coach Kevin O’Connell have only scratched the surface of Dobbs’ assimilation as a stopgap to the team’s quarterbacking emergency, never mind his potential as a postseason playmaker or long-term solution as lame-duck Kirk Cousins recovers from Achilles surgery.
Dobbs fumbled three times against the Broncos and threw an interception on Minnesota’s final, fateful drive. He recovered a pair of botched snaps with center Garrett Bradbury and almost was decapitated by wayward Denver safety Kareem Jackson when the quarterback absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit and fumbled a third-and-1 run on the Vikings’ initial series.
None of these miscues directly led to the end of Minnesota’s five-game winning streak. Collectively they were blunt reminders that Dobbs remains an unfinished product six years after Pittsburgh drafted him in the fourth round out of Tennessee.
Dobbs certainly played well enough to win, completing 20 of 32 passes for 221 yards with another rushing and passing touchdown – becoming the first player in NFL history do that with a new team in his first three games.
The Vikings’ long-dormant running game certainly did enough to win, gashing the soft underbelly of Denver’s defense for 175 yards on almost 5 yards per carry.
But Dobbs’ miscues, coupled with another costly fumble by running back Alexander Mattison in the third quarter, set up three of Denver’s five field goals and kept the Broncos hanging around.
“The ball is our dreams, goals and aspirations,” Dobbs said afterward. “Everyone does well when we take care of the football. As the person the ball goes through it starts with me. It will resonate through the entire offense of taking care of the football.”
Losing the turnover battle 0-3 felt so September for an opportunistic team that seemed to have put those issues in the rear view. Therein lies the rub of starting 1-4. There is a razor-thin margin for error in one-possession games when you’re straddling .500 and battling for a lower-tier wild-card berth.
The defense only allowed one touchdown, when Russell Wilson spun more magic against Minnesota with a game-winning touchdown pass to Courtland Sutton in the back of the end zone with just over a minute remaining.
Perhaps more important than O’Connell’s deft touch in coaching up Dobbs on the playbook and preparing him for a new opponent is defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ heavy-handed approach in confusing opposing quarterbacks. No small task with linebacker and leading tackler Jordan Hicks sidelined with a leg injury.
The Vikings are going to have to mix and match and blitz their way into the playoff bracket, do something special on special teams – like executing a fake punt to extend a crucial drive as they did late Sunday night – and protect Dobbs from having to win the game himself.
At least until he has a command of the roster and the scheme. Or until he gets back wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who seems poised to return to the lineup this week against Chicago or following the Dec. 3 bye after missing half the season with a hamstring injury.
The Vikings hung 385 yards of offense on the Broncos despite their three turnovers. That feels like a recipe for success against the also-ran Bears and muddling Raiders, their next two opponents.
Suddenly, that sure defeat Dec. 17 at Cincinnati looks like a tossup with Joe Burrows lost for the season. Ring in the new year by burying the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium and you can afford to split those two division games against the surging Detroit Lions.
There is a clear path to nine victories and a choppier but not impassable road to 10-7.
Patience, folks. Patience. Don’t be a sucker for the hype.
Or you are the sucker.
Brian Murphy is a contributor to Purple Insider and former Pioneer Press columnist whose sports takes were forged by growing up in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @Murphmedia_