Vikings lose to Cincinnati 27-24 after Dalvin Cook fumbles late in overtime

By Ben Goessling

CINCINNATI, Ohio — The Vikings began the 2021 season intent on proving a busy offseason would cure the issues that led them to a 7-9 record a year ago. The season-opening 27-24 loss they suffered at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday would seem to suggest many of those issues are alive and well.

A first-team offense that managed just six points in the preseason committed many of the mistakes in a game where the Vikings were flagged 12 times for 116 yards. Kirk Cousins was pressured consistently in a five-quarter game where he threw 49 times, and Dalvin Cook managed only 61 yards on 20 carries — the final one of which was an overtime fumble that set Cincinnati up for its game-winning score.

Following a lengthy review that upheld the on-field call Vonn Bell had stripped Cook of the ball before he hit the ground, the Bengals drove for a game-winning 33-yard field goal by Evan McPherson.

The drive swung on a bold fourth-and-1 call from coach Zac Taylor two quarters after his previous call in the same situation helped the Vikings come back from a 14-point deficit.

The end result was just the Vikings' third Week 1 loss in Mike Zimmer's eight seasons. They will travel west next week to face a Cardinals team that beat Tennessee 38-13 on Sunday.

The Vikings finished the first half with 10 accepted penalties for 91 yards (not counting three the Bengals declined). Nine of the accepted penalties were on offense, totaling 65 yards. The Vikings' defensive infraction was a 26-yard pass interference call on Bashaud Breeland after Michael Pierce jumped offside to give Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow a free shot downfield.

Five of the offensive penalties were false starts — two from C.J. Ham and one apiece from Brian O'Neill, K.J. Osborn and Tyler Conklin — and the Vikings were called for holding four times. Ezra Cleveland was the only lineman not called for a penalty in the first half, and by halftime, the Vikings' offense had faced four third downs of 15 yards or longer.

The half ended with the Bengals up 14-7, and Cincinnati drove 75 yards with the opening possession of the second half to go up by two touchdowns. But after a personal foul on Oli Udoh put the Vikings in a 2nd-and-26 situation and waylaid another drive, Taylor made a fourth-down call that gave the Vikings new life when it backfired.

Taylor opted to run Joe Mixon on fourth-and-1 from the Bengals' own 30 in the third quarter, betting on Cincinnati's ability to continue its drive after Burrow hit Ja'Marr Chase for 15 yards on third-and-16.

Analytics models called the decision a toss-up, but Vikings stopped Mixon and turned the favorable field position into a touchdown with their own fourth-down call, when Cousins threw from a clean pocket against a five-man blitz and Adam Thielen won his one-on-one matchup with an inside release on Mike Hilton. Thielen scored a 24-yard touchdown on fourth-and-6 to pull the Vikings within seven.

The Bengals got their lead back to 10 with a McPherson 53-yard field goal, but Cousins directed a drive to the Cincinnati 1, hitting Justin Jefferson for 34 yards on a play where the receiver's back hit the ground as he stretched for the goal line. Zimmer decided to challenge the play, and officials upheld the call on the field. The Vikings scored with one of their favorite goal-line calls — a wide-zone toss to Cook — on the next play, but narrowed the lead to 3 without one of their timeouts.

The Vikings' next drive collapsed when Cleveland (the only lineman who hadn't been called for a penalty) was flagged for holding, and Bengals tackle B.J. Hill beat the right guard for a sack on third down. Cincinnati ran the clock inside of two minutes, forcing the Vikings to call their final timeout, before punting the ball to the Vikings' 5 with 1:48 left.

After Cousins hit Cook for no gain and the running back stepped out of bounds with 1:07 left, the Vikings needed 48 seconds to run their next four plays, leaving Greg Joseph with a 53-yard field goal. The kicker drilled it to send the game to overtime, sending the Vikings' sideline into a frenzy.

But after Cook's fumble, the Bengals faced another fourth-down with 48 seconds left in overtime, Taylor came back with one more call.

The Bengals lined up like they would run Burrow on a sneak on fourth-and-1, but he checked the play at the line of scrimmage, and threw a play-action crossing route to C.J. Uzomah for 32 yards, setting up McPherson's game-winner in the final seconds.

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