MINNEAPOLIS — On the day after Christmas, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford was still in a giving mood. But the Minnesota Vikings were not able to take full advantage of the gifts he bestowed.
Despite Stafford throwing three interceptions, two to linebacker Anthony Barr inside the Rams’ 15-yard line, the Rams held on for a 30-23 victory over Minnesota on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The loss dealt a severe blow to the Vikings’ playoff hopes, dropping Minnesota (7-8) dropped from the No. 7 spot to No. 9 in the NFC playoff race. Philadelphia (8-7) moved ahead in the seven-team playoff chase with a 34-10 home win over the New York Giants. With two games left, Minnesota also would fall a game behind No. 8 New Orleans (7-7) if the Saints beat Miami on Monday night. Seven teams will make the NFC playoffs.
“I’m frustrated, disappointed,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Had an opportunity at home, and it’s disappointing because a win here (Sunday), you do control your destiny and you’re in a better place.”
With star running back Dalvin Cook out after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Thursday, the Vikings were inconsistent on offense. The defense tried to bail out the offense by forcing Stafford into three interceptions for the first time since he threw four for Detroit in the first game of the 2018 season.
“We lost the game, so obviously that’s a missed opportunity,” Barr said.
With the Rams leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Stafford threw an ill-advised pass right to Barr, who returned it three yards to the Rams’ 11. But the Vikings had to settle for a 23-yard Greg Joseph field goal to cut the deficit to 10-3.
On the second play of the second half, with the Rams up 13-3, the Vikings got an interception on a long pass from Stafford that Xavier Woods brought back 15 yards to the Minnesota 38. But the Vikings got no points on the drive.
Later in the third quarter, with the score still 13-3, Stafford had a pass tipped at the line by defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson that was picked off by Barr and returned eight yards to the Rams 2. Alexander Mattison, who started in place of Cook and had just 41 yards rushing, then scored on a 2-yard run to make it 13-10.
But that was just 10 points off the three interceptions.
“We definitely let (the defense) down,’’ said Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson. “I felt like they played a tremendous game, especially with those turnovers. We’ve got to find a way to get in the end zone. … It’ll be a different game if we do that.’’
Jefferson was critical of the Vikings’ offense when it got close to the end zone. They had five possessions inside the Rams 8, and came away with two touchdowns, two field goals and an interception. With the Vikings down 7-0 late in the first quarter, Cousins threw a pass that bounced off K.J. Osborn’s hands and was snagged by Travin Howard.
“I think we should be more aggressive when we get down there, as soon as we get down there,’’ Jefferson said. “But I’m not the one calling the plays.”
It was a bittersweet day for Jefferson, who caught eight passes for 116 yards. He did break Odell Beckham Jr.’s NFL record in the third quarter for most yards receiving in a player’s first two seasons. Beckham, now with the Rams, had 2,755 yards with the New York Giants in 2014 and 2015, and Jefferson now has 2,851.
“Breaking his record with him in the building, it was no other perfect situation for me, but a (win) would definitely be better with that record,’’ Jefferson said.
After Mattison’s score, the Vikings had a shot at a comeback win. But Rams receiver Brandon Powell soon returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown for a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
The Rams extended the lead to 27-13 on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Beckham Jr. with 11:37 left in the game before Cousins threw a 6-yard score to Osborn to make it 27-20 with 8:21 left.
Cousins completed 27 of 38 passes for 315 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He had just 89 yards in the first half before padding his stats in the second half when the Vikings were trailing.
The Rams all but sealed the game when they went up 30-20 on a 24-yard field goal by Matt Gay with 2:03 left. Joseph kicked a 44-yard field goal with 32 seconds left to cut the deficit to 30-23 before an onside kick was unsuccessful.
“Disappointing loss. … When you get interceptions and turnovers, you want to score,’’ said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
Stafford completed 21 of 37 passes for 197 yards and had a meager passer rating of 46.8. But he at least was supported by a solid running game as the Rams (11-4) took over sole possession of first place in the NFC West, one game ahead of Arizona.
The Rams, with Sony Michel carrying 27 times for 131 yards, outrushing the Vikings 159 yards to 66.
“We talked all week about controlling the game with our tempo and being able to run the football, and they ran the ball way better than we did,’’ Zimmer said.
The Rams established the run on their first possession, and took a 7-0 on a 1-yard run by Michel. The 70-yard touchdown drive came not long after Barr said Zimmer gave a talk on the field before the game in an attempt to fire up the team.
“He just told us we’ve got to bring our own energy because … it felt like it was a little dead inside here,’’ Barr said. “It’s usually got a nice buzz, and for some reason, it wasn’t like that.’’
So did Barr have a theory on why the atmosphere was listless?
“Christmas hangover,’’ he said. “I don’t know what you all did last night. Too much fun, I guess.’’