Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) jumps into the end zone near Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) for a touchdown run in the second quarter of an NFL football game in Minneapolis, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) jumps into the end zone near Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) for a touchdown run in the second quarter of an NFL football game in Minneapolis, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After yet another harrowing finish, head coach Mike Zimmer didn't attempt to downplay his exasperation with the way the Minnesota Vikings have perpetually let large leads vanish and found themselves in precarious end-of-game situations.

The Vikings were ahead by 23 points at halftime Thursday night. Even as they nudged their advantage to 29-0 late in the third quarter, they frittered away highly favorable field position and had to settle for field goals when touchdowns truly would have put the Pittsburgh Steelers away.

Were the Vikings actually thinking, “Here we go again," with a four-score lead at home?

“The whole time in the second half, yeah,” Zimmer said.

The angst hovered in the stadium all the way through the final snap. The Steelers were within 36-28 with 12 yards and a 2-point conversion needed to tie. Ben Roethlisberger's on-target pass hit the hands of rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth and fell to the end zone turf after the well-timed arrival of safeties Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods to give the Vikings a must-have victory.

“That team that played in the first half for us was pretty darn good and I think could probably beat anybody,” said Zimmer, who has watched the Vikings lose on the last play four times this season. “That team that played in the second half probably could get beat by anybody.”

The Vikings (6-7) remained very much alive in the crowd of competitors for the last two NFC wild-card spots, one of seven clubs entering the weekend with either six or seven losses. At this point in an NFL season, inconsistent teams are just that, too late to truly put it all together and be considered a contender.

With the expanded playoffs, they'll remain relevant through the end of the schedule. They're the only team in the league without a loss by more than eight points. Even Arizona, Green Bay and New England have had one clunker.

“I’m trying to teach these guys how to finish. We talk about it all the time, being detailed about your job,” Zimmer said.

In the snapshot of these squandered leads, the eyes always go first to the defense. But as productive as Kirk Cousins and company have been with the ball on the whole this year, the offense must shoulder its share of blame for a repeated failure to deliver the knockout blows in games the Vikings have had well in hand only to white-knuckle it to the last second.

Even with the blockers up front bludgeoning the Steelers and Dalvin Cook racing his way to 205 rushing yards, there were hints of trouble for the offense with Adam Thielen sidelined. Cousins found Justin Jefferson wide open often, including for a touchdown in the first quarter off a play-action fake, but the normally precise quarterback misfired multiple times.

Cousins went 14 for 31 with two interceptions, in only the fourth time in 117 career NFL starts he failed to complete at least half of his passes. That only happened twice before with the Vikings: at Green Bay in 2019 and at Indianapolis in 2020.

“We’ve shown potential, but you’ve got to do it not only for four quarters, but for really four more games,” Cousins said.

WHAT'S WORKING

The Vikings used a mix of their preferred zone running plays and some traditional gap blocking to gash the Steelers for 242 rushing yards on an average of 6.7 yards per attempt. That was their highest output on the ground in 21 games.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

When cornerback Bashaud Breeland became ill and missed much of the second half with an illness, Cameron Dantzler and Kris Boyd were targeted often as Roethlisberger led the rally by the Steelers. Having Patrick Peterson back on the outside was a big boost for the Vikings, but their depth at cornerback remains tenuous.

STOCK UP

Smith had his third sack of the season to go with the game-saving play on Freiermuth and a steady diet of will-he-or-won’t-he blitz-disguising for Roethlisberger at the line.

“His eyes, and his demeanor, and just his ability to impact the game the way he did last night, it’s special,” Peterson said. "He means a lot to this defense. He means a lot to this organization. It just goes to show us old guys can still play.”

STOCK DOWN

Backup cornerback Cameron Dantzler, who was beaten for the winning touchdown at Detroit last week, was singled out by Zimmer for playing poorly in the red zone down the stretch.

KEY NUMBER

Plus-23 — the sack differential for the Vikings that's the best in the NFL. They've allowed 18 on offense and recorded 41 on defense. The team record was set in 1989, according to Sportradar data, when they had 71 sacks and gave up 40 for a plus-31 differential.

INJURY REPORT

Sprained ankles can be slow to heal, so Thielen's status remains unclear. He might have to miss another game, though the fact the Vikings didn't place him on injured reserve means he ought to be back for at least the last three games. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw has missed the last two games with the same injury.

Even without Hunter and Griffen, the defense was as close to full strength as it has been in a month.

NEXT STEPS

The Vikings don't play again until Dec. 20 in another prime time kickoff at Chicago. This will be their fourth Monday night road game against the Bears in six years. The players were given four full days off before they must return to practice.

“I think they need to get away from me a little bit,” Zimmer said. “When we get back, we need to really hone in on being more disciplined.”

Said Peterson: “When coach tells us, ‘I won’t see you ’til Tuesday,' that was awesome news."

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