The Washington Post's Jason Reid offers the key takeaways from the Redskins' crippling performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night. (The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins faded away quietly late Thursday night in a 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and any hope they had of salvaging their season may have disappeared as well.

The Redskins looked like a team on the rise as they took a 13-point lead in the third quarter, but their dispirited finish stirred more questions about where they’re headed. The Redskins’ defense collapsed as the Vikings stormed back with 20 unanswered points — including 13 straight after starting quarterback Christian Ponder was knocked out of the game because of a shoulder injury late in the third — and the Redskins came up short again on their final drive.

The Redskins drove from their 20-yard line to the Minnesota 4, but wide receiver Santana Moss couldn’t stay inbounds while catching a pass in the left corner of the end zone from quarterback Robert Griffin III. After taking over on downs, the Vikings ran out the clock for only their second victory in nine games.

The loss could prove to be a major blow to the Redskins (3-6), who despite an 0-3 start still aspire to win the weak NFC East and return to the playoffs. The Redskins lost ground in the division because their defense collapsed and their offense, which rolled for three quarters, stalled. Let’s start there.

Disappearing act

For defensive coordinators, the game plan is simple against the Vikings: Try to stop second-to-none running back Adrian Peterson.

Against Peterson — no other rushers possesses his unique combination of size, speed, vision, power and shiftiness — defensive players must remain disciplined in their run responsibilities. Covering each gap along the line on every play is essential because Peterson exploits mistakes with his cutback ability.

Overall, the Redskins’ run defense was outstanding. They swarmed Peterson, limiting him to only 75 yards and a 3.8-yard average.

Unfortunately for defensive play-caller Jim Haslett, Peterson had two rushing touchdowns, including a one-yarder in the third as the Vikings rallied. At the most inopportune moment for the Redskins, their defense vanished.

In the first half, the defense played effectively — Ponder completed 17 of 21 passes in the game but only had 174 yards — at times as the Redskins built a double-digit lead. Then in the third and fourth quarters, the Redskins failed to pressure the quarterback and experienced breakdowns in pass coverage. That’s called bad timing.

Wasted offense

Griffin, who had 281 yards passing, matched his career high with three touchdown passes in the first half. Running back Alfred Morris (139 yards rushing) had his best game of the season. Again, wide receiver Pierre Garcon (119 yards) was a difference-maker in the passing game. And the offensive line, for three quarters anyway, was sharp at both pass protection and run blocking.

When Morris was in top form last season, he finished runs with such a bruising style that many defensive players backed off of him late in games. On several runs Thursday, Morris steamrolled Vikings players.

Morris generates impressive leg drive and is able to maintain his balance while being corralled by several would-be tacklers. Against the Vikings, Morris extended runs by dragging players after initial hits.

The offensive line opened some huge holes for Morris, especially in the first half, in his second consecutive game with more than 100 yards rushing and third overall this season. The most important part of the running game, however, was the punishment Morris inflicted on the Vikings. It’s what Morris does best.

Garcon followed last week’s seven-catch, 172-yard performance with another strong outing. Garcon, who teamed with Griffin on an eight-yard touchdown pass, was too fast for Vikings defensive backs on several plays.

After they struggled to get in sync at the outset of the season, Griffin and Garcon definitely are on the same page now. Garcon’s speed is what separates him from the rest of Washington’s receiving corps.

For the most part, Coach Mike Shanahan and his offensive play-caller son, Kyle, got what they expected from the offense against one of the NFL’s worst defenses. The offense, though, didn’t do enough to overcome another letdown on defense.

Ah, remember to slide

Although Griffin may never slide as effectively as Tom Brady, he has to keep working on getting down as fast as possible. Again, Griffin absorbed several big hits on both designed runs and while scrambling.

With Washington on the Minnesota 13-yard line late in the closing seconds of the first half, Griffin scrambled up the middle and took on three Vikings near the goal line. He got drilled at the 1 and hit his head hard on the stadium’s artificial surface.

The 12-yard gain help set up Griffin’s short touchdown pass to Logan Paulsen on the next play — but Griffin can’t keep taking so many chances. Seems like we’ve heard that somewhere before.

Needing another late run

As we all remember, the Redskins’ also had a 3-6 record last season. They finished with a season-closing seven-game winning streak and won their first NFC East title in 13 years.

Although anything is possible, the Redskins have shown few signs of being able to put it all together. And losing to a bottom-rung team like Minnesota isn’t the best way to ignite a run.

The takeaway

Even in the awful NFC East, the Redskins are in a really bad spot now. Forget about trying to win the division and sneak into the playoffs. Shanahan must find a way to hold the disappointing Redskins together in their final seven games.

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