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 a 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 in hopes of preventing an emotional hangover. But the momentum they had hoped would carry over from that win wasn’t there Sunday.
"Surprising? Well, obviously, it was very surprising," Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said. "I didn't expect to come in here and get the s--- kicked out of us. So yeah, it was surprising."
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) they allowed this season, the offense’s first red zone turnover and the most first-half points they allowed (24).
The pressure under which Case Keenum had been so good finally got to him midway through the first quarter, when he threw his first pick-six as a Viking. Before halftime, the quarterback turned the ball over again, a product of a cross-blocking scheme gone awry in the red zone 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 a fumble.
"One of the things we preached coming in was turnovers," Keenum said. "They took care of the football, and we didn't. We were still in it at that point, obviously, but we just couldn't execute on the crucial situations we needed to convert on third down or score in the red zone."
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 taken by the Eagles with the draft pick acquired in the trade for Sam Bradford in 2016.
The Vikings got so close to their ultimate goal once again, but they watched it slip away in devastating fashion. This wasn’t the worst of the past six losses in the NFC title game (that belongs to the 2000 Minnesota team that was blown out 41-0 by the New York Giants), but given the improbability of this season and all that the Vikings had accomplished under adverse conditions, this one might carry the heaviest sting.
"We've been going through a lot ... from last year to this year," cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. "This year it meant a lot because we had a lot of people go down and were still able to get here. Doesn't mean anything to get here and lose. We were so close. That hurts more that we're here and weren't able to pull it off. Good job to those guys. They were able to pull it off. Look forward to next year."
The Vikings 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 there they were, the NFL’s Cinderella story of the year, led by a career backup QB in Keenum, who had a career year in leading the Vikings on an eight-game win streak from Weeks 5 through 13, to a first-round bye and to a monumental win in the divisional round.
So close, yet so far.
This game was supposed to be a defensive struggle, 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, which 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 was tripped up by the Eagles’ run-pass option and couldn’t recover. The Eagles’ stupendous playcalling allowed Nick Foles to look like his 2013 Pro Bowl self, throwing for 352 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
What was most jarring, however, was how poor the Vikings played on third down, one of the strongest aspects of this defense. Minnesota set the NFL record for third-down defense (25.2 percent conversion rate) in 2017. On Sunday, Philadelphia converted on 10 of its 14 third-down tries.
"Completely uncharacteristic from what we did all season," Minnesota cornerback Terence Newman said. "They have some guys that are damn good football players. I'm not going to sit here and try to take anything away from this team. They played excellent, and we didn't play as well as we wanted to, but they executed. They made plays."
Things started to unfold in a domino effect for the Vikings secondary before halftime. Rhodes hurt his toe and had to play through injury. Andrew Sendejo never returned from a calf injury. Harrison Smith was 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 floodgates 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 their top-tier defense but also with their offense.
But those things didn't happen Sunday night. The team that lost the NFC Championship Game did not resemble the one that got the Vikings this far.
It won't take another Minneapolis Miracle for this team to recover. Much of this current roster will be in place next season, though the quarterback position is up for grabs with no current QB under contract. The team will have to decide from among Keenum, Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater.
But even though the Vikings should return another strong team, that doesn’t mean the sting from this defeat will go away any time soon.