Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knows this feeling all too well. Of all the franchises that have memorable kicking woes in their histories, Minnesota’s had some of the worst. During a 2016 NFC wild-card game, Blair Walsh’s 27-yard miss cost the Vikings a victory against the Seahawks; in Week 2 of 2018, rookie Daniel Carlson’s three misses led to a tie against the Packers, and he was cut two days later; and let’s not even get into Gary Anderson. This time, Dan Bailey’s kicking misfortunes were at the forefront of a 26-14 defeat to the Buccaneers, and as a result, the Vikings’ postseason chances are in peril.
The Vikings needed a win Sunday. After starting the year 1-5, Minnesota had climbed back into the playoff picture, entering the week 6-6 and in position to capture the NFC’s seventh seed. A win against Tampa Bay would have increased the Vikings’ playoff chances from 43 percent to 68 percent, according to The New York Times, and things looked good early on.
Minnesota took a 6-0 lead in the second quarter following a 14-play, 84-yard touchdown drive. But when Bailey lined up for the extra point, he missed. The next Vikings drive, Bailey had a 36-yard chance, but shanked it right. Tampa Bay took over and four plays later, Tom Brady connected with Scotty Miller on a 48-yard touchdown to give the Bucs a 7-6 lead. The drive after that, Bailey sailed a 54-yarder wide right, and the Bucs answered with a 10-play, 58-yard series capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Ronald Jones II.
The Vikings trailed 23-6 in the early third quarter, but had pulled within nine points when Bailey was called in for a 46-yard attempt in the fourth quarter. Again, Bailey pushed the kick wide right, and Tampa Bay responded with a field goal to go up by 12. The Vikings didn’t score again.
Minnesota’s shortcomings on Sunday can’t be pinned solely on Bailey. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had a solid day (24-for-37, 225 yards, one TD) against a stingy Bucs defense, but was sacked six times for a combined 52 yards lost—not to mention 10 different Bucs defenders generated at least one QB pressure. Minnesota went 5-for-15 (33 percent) on third down despite having entered the game tied for eighth in the league in conversion rate (43.6 percent). And while Brady wasn’t particularly accurate early on, the Vikings defense gave up a few big completions to Miller and Mike Evans, as well as a boneheaded pass interference on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, which the Bucs turned into three points.
Still, the Vikings understandably expected more from Bailey. Sure, the Justin Tuckers and Harrison Butkers of the world don’t grow on trees, but Bailey isn’t a slouch. He entered Sunday having hit 86.9 percent of his career field-goal attempts, which ranked sixth all time, and he’s coming off a bounceback season where he nailed 93.1 percent of his field goals. As a result, the Vikings signed Bailey to a three-year, $10 million deal this past offseason.
However, the 32-year-old has shown decline this year, especially in recent weeks. Entering this week, Bailey had connected on 80 percent of his attempts (21st in the league) and 90 percent of his extra points (23rd) this season. He went 1-for-3 on extra points last week against the Jaguars and missed a 51-yard attempt that helped keep Jacksonville in the contest and push the game to overtime, though the Vikings eventually won. Bailey has now missed seven kicks over Weeks 13 and 14, which is poor timing for a rut, to say the least.
Zimmer did his best to be measured when assessing his kicker’s performance after the game, but when asked how to handle Bailey, he told reporters, “At this point in time, we’re not really worried about feelings anymore.” Added Zimmer: “If you guys want me to fire guys for making a mistake here or a mistake there, I wouldn’t have any players.”
Zimmer obviously has a point. The Vikings were expected to compete for the NFC North crown, but have fallen well below expectations, in part because of underwhelming play early in the season. But Minnesota seemed to be doing just enough lately to keep itself afloat in the NFC playoff race, and considering it entered the week boasting Football Outsiders’ no. 13 offense and no. 9 defense in DVOA, there was reason to believe that the Vikings could be trusted to complete their in-season rebound.
But the margins for a fringe playoff team in December are especially slim, and they got even slimmer today. The New York Times’ model projects that Minnesota’s playoff odds have dipped to 21 percent after Sunday’s loss. The 6-7 Vikings are now staring up at the 7-6 Cardinals in the standings with the 6-7 Bears next to them in the hunt.
The Vikings’ season isn’t a complete waste—the improved play of Cousins over the second half the year, the Offensive Player of the Year–caliber showing from running back Dalvin Cook, the emergence of rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, and the growth of a young secondary were all encouraging signs. But Minnesota was expected to accomplish more this year. A few bad weeks from their kicker shouldn’t have been enough to all but unravel their playoff chances. But that’s the reality—and now the Vikings face a steep path to have any postseason shot at all.