The Vikings needed an upset on their own turf Sunday to keep their place in the NFC playoff picture, and for at least one half of their matchup with the NFC West-leading Rams, they seemed primed to deliver. Mike Zimmer's defense intercepted former division rival Matthew Stafford three times, and Sean McVay's squad looked incapable of exploding at U.S. Bank Stadium. But the Vikings couldn't do much with the ball in their own hands, and they definitely couldn't slow Sony Michel, who logged 131 yards on the ground to lead the Rams' methodical attack en route to a 30-23 victory.
The close win marks Los Angeles' fourth straight to stay atop the NFC West amid the Cardinals' slide. It also puts a dent in Minnesota's own path to the postseason, with the Eagles (8-7) -- a fellow wild card contender -- logging a big win over the Giants on Sunday.
Here are some takeaways from Sunday's NFC showdown:
Why the Rams won
Believe it or not, Matthew Stafford had very little to do with this win over old foes. In fact, the ex-Lions QB was positively erratic -- and, at times, rattled -- against the Vikings, throwing three picks and nearly another two while forcing too many big shots. Fortunately, though, he had a top-notch Michel to lean on; McVay wisely leaned on the new No. 1 back early (and then again in the waning minutes), and Michel delivered on the ground. Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. also contributed when Stafford could accurately find them, each stepping up with key first downs or touchdowns down the stretch. Just as big as the Michel-fueled run game was their physical defense. Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald were predictably physical in key moments, Travin Howard came up with an early red-zone pick, and the front seven kept the Vikings' Dalvin Cook-less rushing attack in check.
Why the Vikings lost
All three phases took turns failing. That may sound overly simplistic, but it's the truth. On offense, Kirk Cousins was fine, notably charging down the field in the fourth quarter and feeding Justin Jefferson to keep Minnesota within reach, but he was too often undone by the coaching staff's commitment to early-down runs or conservative red-zone play-calling. On defense, Anthony Barr headlined a first-half surge that made it feel as if Minnesota was winning despite trailing on the scoreboard, picking off Stafford twice as Zimmer's front kept the Rams QB uneasy in the pocket; but down the stretch, Patrick Peterson and the secondary had no answer for Kupp or Beckham, let alone a busy Michel. Special teams also chipped in, with Minnesota's punt team allowing Brandon Powell to score on a 61-yard return that kept L.A. out in front.
The Vikings seemed destined to finally come out on top of a close contest after picking off Stafford for a third time and then quickly cutting the Rams' lead to three with an Alexander Mattison touchdown run in the third. But then came Minnesota's fateful three-and-out right after L.A.'s own punt, with Powell outracing every single Viking on his punt-return touchdown. The score took a load of pressure off Stafford, who was clearly rattled at the time, and kept the Rams out in front for good.
Play of the game
That belongs to Powell, the undrafted journeyman who caught his game-changing punt amid a lot of traffic and then pointed his own way to the end zone, speeding down the sideline for the touchdown:
The Rams (11-4), with a playoff spot now locked up, will stay on the road in Week 17, when they're set to visit the Ravens (8-7), who just fell to the Bengals while missing their top two quarterbacks. The Vikings (7-8), meanwhile, will face another contender by visiting Lambeau Field for a "Sunday Night Football" rematch with the Packers (12-3), who edged the Browns on Christmas Day.