PHILADELPHIA — Another long offseason awaits the Vikings following their sixth straight defeat in the NFC Championship Game.
The days, weeks and months ahead of Minnesota’s 38-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles will be a source of agonizing retrospect as the Vikings try to comprehend what went wrong the night their dream of being the first team to play in the Super Bowl on their home turf was crushed, dashed and discarded.
The Minneapolis Miracle turned out to be short-lived. The Vikings were adamant that they weren’t aiming to build off the euphoric high from last week’s insane walk-off touchdown to prevent an emotional hangover. But the momentum they had hoped would carry over from that win wasn’t there.
The loss coincided with a series of unfortunate firsts for the Vikings: the first defensive touchdown they allowed this season, the longest passing touchdown (53 yards) given up by the defense, the offense’s first red zone turnover and the most points Minnesota has given up in a first half (24) this year.
The pressure Case Keenum had been so good at performing under finally got to him midway through the first quarter when he threw his first pick-6 as a Viking. Before halftime, the quarterback turned the ball over again, a product of a cross-blocking scheme gone awry in the redzone when tight end David Morgan was called upon to block Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett who came speeding off the right edge to strip the ball from Keenum and force the fumble.
If those errors didn’t cause enough of a sting, this tidbit will. Remember the name Derek Barnett? If you’re a Vikings fan, you might. The defensive end was the draft pick used by the Eagles acquired in the trade for Sam Bradford in 2016.
The Vikings got so close to their ultimate goal once again and watched it slip away in devastating fashion. This wasn’t the worst of last six losses in the NFC title game (that belongs to the 2000 Minnesota team that was blown out 41-0 by the Giants), but given the improbability of this season and all the Vikings had accomplished under adverse conditions, this one may carry the heaviest sting of all.
They weren’t supposed to be playing at this point of the season. Not after losing Bradford and top-draft choice Dalvin Cook within the first four weeks of the season. Yet here they were, the NFL’s Cinderella story of the year led by a career backup QB in Keenum who achieved a career-year in Minnesota, leading the Vikings on an eight-game win streak from Weeks 5-13, to a first-round bye and monumental win in the divisional round.
So close, yet so far.
This game was supposed to be a defensive struggle featuring a heavyweight battle between two of the best defenses in the NFL. Minnesota finished the regular season No. 1 in yards and points allowed per game. Philadelphia boasted the league’s best run defense, that tightened up after allowing 33 yards on the ground in the first quarter, most of which occurred on the Vikings sole scoring drive, and held Minnesota to 70 total rushing yards.
The Vikings defense got tripped up by the Eagles run-pass option and couldn’t recover. The Eagles stupendous play-calling allowed Nick Foles to look like his 2013 Pro Bowl self, throwing for 352 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Foles success was made way from a domino effect by the Vikings starting secondary. Xavier Rhodes hurt his toe and had to play through injury. Andrew Sendejo never returned from a calf injury. Harrison Smith got burned by Eagles tight end Zach Ertz all night. Trae Waynes bit on how well wide receiver Torrey Smith sold his route on the flea-flicker, opening the flood gates even further for the Eagles in the second half.
The Vikings did a lot of good things this season. They proved that they could fight back and not just get by. They proved they could dominate teams and win not only with its top-tier defense, but also with its offense.
But those things didn’t show up on Sunday night. The team that lost the NFC Championship did not resemble the one that got the Vikings this far.
It won’t take another Minneapolis Miracle for this team to recover. So much of this current roster will be in place next season, although the quarterback position is up for grabs with no current QB under contract. The team will have to decide between Keenum, Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater. But while the Vikings should return another strong team, that doesn’t mean the sting from this defeat will go away any time soon.