A day after the Vikings lost to the down-and-out San Francisco 49ers, who entered the game with a 2-5 record and were coming off a 41-10 blowout to the Bears, the players and coaches were trying to figure out how they could have lost 9-3.
"We have the ability to move the football, but it can't be fits and starts. It can't be 10 forward, 10 backwards," said head coach Brad Childress. "Those penalties have to stop, and when you have an opportunity to make a play around the football, whether it's on offense or defense, and they have a chance to throw it to us, you can't drop the football."
Troy Williamson dropped two would-be first downs – including a critical third-down drop in 49ers territory on the Vikings' last drive of the game – and Bethel Johnson dropped an easily catchable bomb earlier in the game.
"Troy's young and he's got a lot of pressure on him. You've just got to keep encouraging him, that's the main thing," said wide receiver Travis Taylor, echoing the sentiments of Marcus Robinson last month after another game in which Williamson dropped seemingly easy completions.
"I'm big on making the routine plays routinely, and once in a while you're going to make one of those sensational plays," Childress said.
The Vikings have been able to move the ball with some success this season, which is the reason they are ranked 19th in total yardage as opposed to their dead-last ranking in red zone efficiency – scoring touchdowns on only 22.2 percent of their trips inside the red zone this year.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield, part of the Vikings' sixth-ranked defense, says the offense needs to become more aggressive.
"Attack more. We're running the ball and did that pretty well. There are too many check-downs. We have to go down the field more and put some pressure on defenses. It's real easy to play them right now," he said, adding that teams are definitely concentrated on stopping running back Chester Taylor first. "You know Chester is going to touch the ball 25 or 30 times a game. You try to stop the run and make the guys on the outside beat you."
So far that hasn't happened, especially with the two-game absence of Robinson, who couldn't say whether his aching back would allow him to play Sunday against Green Bay.
Ironically, the offense's struggles to put points on the board could affect the defense's aggressiveness as well. If the offense can't score, then the defense might have to take more chances in an effort to put points on the board, Winfield said.
"I think that's what we have to do at this point. Our offense is struggling a little bit. We just have to give them some short field and score on defense. Somehow, find a way to win," he said.
Winfield had the only interception for the Vikings in San Francisco, but there were other opportunities, according to linebacker E.J. Henderson.
"A couple opportunities presented themselves. We had a tipped ball up in the air for a little while. A couple times I think back and I could have had a good try at the ball," Henderson said. "It's a matter of just taking a shot, reading your cues and hoping the quarterback makes a bad decision."
That didn't happen in San Francisco, where the 49ers were never forced to come out of their conservative game. The Vikings held running back Frank Gore to 41 yards rushing, and he was the leading receiver on his team as well with 36 yards on five receptions. But, despite the 49ers only producing 133 yards of offense, they held the lead from midway through the second quarter until the end of the game.
The 9-3 frustration left the Vikings searching for answers, but already Childress was finding motivation for his team as they prepare for Green Bay. That motivation came in a glance ahead at the playoff picture.
"Just talk about this football team, 4-4 at the halfway, which is average as average can be. At times good, at times bad, but what I just told our football team, at 4-4 right now if they were picking playoff teams we'd be the sixth playoff team," Childress said. "We would be a Wild Card team based on every tiebreaker there is. (We) understand there are eight more to play, but just in case somebody is putting that in a box and writing the Vikings off, we have everything to play for."