Thursday night’s win by the Vikings could have gone the other way, thanks to a curious decision made by coach Mike Zimmer in the second half.
With 2:48 left in the third quarter and the Vikings facing fourth and one from their own 34 after a Washington field goal cut the margin to 16-9, Zimmer opted to go for it. A poorly-executed quarterback sneak went nowhere, and Washington reclaimed possession of the ball with a short field and a chance to tie the game.
The circumstances screamed out “punt” in that situation. Rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins had just finagled a scoring drive, and the Vikings handed him a chance to follow a six-play, 50-yard drive with a 34-yard march to the end zone.
Two plays later, Haskins overthrew his receiver and Vikings safety Anthony Harris snagged the ball, quickly ending the threat. If it had gone another way, however, the Vikings could have found themselves tied with Washington in the fourth quarter.
Zimmer ultimately trusted his defense, which had bent but not broken on several drives earlier in the game, to defend the final 34 yards. But it was at best a calculated risk, one that could have eventually undermined the team’s three-game winning streak by squandering the lead and potentially setting the stage for a loss to a seven-loss team.
The fact that the defense made a play validated Zimmer’s decision. Still, it will be interesting to see whether Zimmer throws caution to the wind in future fourth-down situations in his own territory in games his team is leading by only one score. On Thursday night, he got away with it — without converting on fourth down.