For the first time in over a month, the Minnesota Vikings received good enough play at the quarterback position to win a football game.
Starting for the second straight week, Christian Ponder threw for 236 yards and contributed two touchdowns to an offensive effort that pushed 400 total yards and gave the Vikings a lead late over the Dallas Cowboys. He displayed the kind of efficiency and production that had been missing during recent losses to the Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
Yet for the third time in eight tries this season, the now 1-7 Vikings saw a game that should have been won slip through their fingers when the defense couldn't make a stop during the dying embers of a contest.
Forget Minnesota's quarterback carousel. Until the Vikings get better on defense, it won't matter who is taking snaps under center.
For most of Sunday, the Vikings were better on that side of the football.
A front four created consistent pressure on quarterback Tony Romo, who saw his fair share of defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison in the Cowboys backfield. Robison recorded two sacks, while the Vikings were credited with three total and three other quarterback hits.
A run defense that allowed 182 rushing yards to the Packers a week prior gave up just 36 over nine carries to Dallas, and 27 came on just one DeMarco Murray carry in the first quarter.
Even a banged-up secondary that was missing starters Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford and Chris Cook held strong for most of the contest. Before the final drive, Dallas had scored just 13 points on offense. And when rookie Xavier Rhodes went out with a leg injury late in the fourth, A.J. Jefferson replaced him and promptly intercepted Romo with 4:29 left.
For 57 minutes, it looked like the Vikings were going to pull off a win that looked staggeringly similar to those in 2012.
Then Romo got the ball back with 2:44 left, and the same Vikings defense that has played a leading role in sinking the 2013 season cost Minnesota another win.
Starting at his own 10-yard line, Romo completed six of his first seven passes before finding Dwayne Harris on a seven-yard completion that gave Dallas a 27-23 lead. The drive went 90 yards in nine plays, taking 2:09 off the clock and leaving the Vikings just 35 seconds left.
Thanks to a missed extra point by kicker Blair Walsh on Minnesota's final touchdown, Ponder and the Vikings offense were forced to go the length of the field to win the game. Instead of attempting to get into field goal range, Ponder's final Hail Mary attempt landed five yards short of the end zone. It was a fitting end to another game in which Minnesota came this close but ended so far from a win.
There is so much blame to go around for Minnesota's disastrous season, from botching nearly every decision at quarterback to a reduced role for Adrian Peterson and a coaching staff—in particular offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave—that can't seem to get out of its own way.
But if any one factor has hurt the Vikings the most in 2013, it's probably a defense that has given away three games and is ranked in the bottom of the NFL in most significant categories.
Given a chance to win a tough road game in Chicago in Week 2, the Vikings allowed Jay Cutler and the Bears to go 66 yards over 10 plays. With 10 seconds left, Cutler found Martellus Bennett to steal away a one-point win.
Just a week later, Brian Hoyer—making his first start of the season for Cleveland—took the visiting Browns 55 yards in 11 plays. His touchdown to Jordan Cameron gave Cleveland a four-point lead with under a minute remaining.
What is more important for the Vikings to get turned around?
Sunday's march from Romo was just as easy, and the end result was the same. A team that could very well be 4-4 and still alive is now 1-7 and all but looking ahead to another offseason.
When that offseason eventually comes, a defensive overhaul might sit alongside a quarterback atop Minnesota's wish list.
The Vikings certainly need to get better at quarterback, where neither Ponder, Matt Cassel nor Josh Freeman (so far) have proven worthy of starting past this season. Until Minnesota gets a better option under center, miracle seasons like 2012—when everything seemed to go right—will need to happen for the Vikings to contend for the playoffs.
That said, the Vikings can beat anyone when Peterson is well fed, the quarterback is asked to make easy throws and the defense plays the way it wants to: with pressure from the front four and a back seven capable of taking away the run and forcing turnovers.
As it stands currently, the Vikings do not possess any of the attributes of past Minnesota defenses. And that reality has cost the Vikings any chance of staying competitive in 2013.
Giving away another win Sunday was just further proof that if Minnesota is going to become a contender again soon, the defense needs to get fixed just as fast as the quarterback position.