MINNEAPOLIS -- Thursday night provided 3 hours, 20 minutes of evidence for those who doubted the validity of the Minnesota Vikings' surprising start. Beat up and beat down by a 2-4 team that traveled halfway across the country on a short week, the Vikings looked much more like the rebuilding program that many anticipated.
Left up for debate: Can the Vikings squeeze out enough wins in the second half of the season to remain in playoff contention? Or was their 36-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, combined with a brutal second-half schedule, the beginning of the end for this team?
Almost as a rule in the NFL, each week's results get magnified and blown out of proportion. One win should not make a season, and one loss shouldn't break it. Yet even with that caveat, we saw plenty Thursday night to leave us questioning this group's playoff viability.
Quarterback Christian Ponder played another underwhelming game, missing on five of his first six passes and experiencing intermittent accuracy problems throughout. The defense was gashed by a diminutive running back for the second consecutive week, giving up 214 all-purpose yards to Doug Martin a week after the Arizona Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling gashed them for 149 all-purpose yards.
Cornerback Chris Cook broke his wrist, leaving his availability in question for the remainder of the season. And perhaps most important, the Vikings face a second-half schedule that starts Nov. 4 at the Seattle Seahawks and includes two games against the 5-1 Chicago Bears, two more against the 4-3 Green Bay Packers and one against the 6-1 Houston Texans.
"You can't just sit here and think this is the end of your season," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Guys have to keep playing. This is the NFL. They're going to get you a few times. We know the schedule coming ahead for us. It's tough. That's just the way it is. We have to play better than we did tonight. That's for sure."
Indeed, the Buccaneers took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and the Vikings produced only brief glimpses of competitiveness thereafter. They made it 13-7 after Ponder hit receiver Percy Harvin on an 18-yard touchdown with 9 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the second quarter, and it was 20-10 at halftime. But as defensive end Brian Robison put it: "The bottom line is they did a good job of pretty much beating our brains in."
Fellow defensive end Jared Allen said: "I don't know if we were flat, but we didn't seem to have a sense of urgency. You can't wait until you're down 15 or 20 points to start getting after it."
Allen spoke with a cut above the bridge of his nose, courtesy of a third-quarter fight with Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. That scuffle offered the Vikings another chance to gain momentum, but their offense went three-and-out late in the third quarter while trailing 27-10. In their best chance to get back into the game, in fact, center John Sullivan caught Ponder by surprise with a low shotgun snap on third-and-6. It was one of a series of ill-timed mistakes that also included first-half fumbles by tailback Adrian Peterson and receiver Jerome Simpson.
"We need to have a gut check right now," Robison said. "Luckily we have a three-day weekend to rest our bodies up. But if we go to Seattle and play this way, they're going to whoop us up, too."
Can the Vikings play better against teams such as the Seahawks, Bears and Packers? Not with a passing offense that failed miserably in its attempt to capitalize on the Bucs' shaky pass defense. Ponder missed two simple swing passes to Harvin and, more ominously, threw two deep shots out of bounds when Simpson had single coverage.
Ponder finished with 251 passing yards, but 117 of them came during garbage time in the fourth quarter. He completed only three of the 10 attempts that traveled farther than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage -- against a defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information, that allowed 56 percent of such throws to be completed in its first six games.
"I have to play better and I think that's obvious to everyone," Ponder said.
Coach Leslie Frazier added: "Our passing game needs to improve. It's hard to just continue to try to pound it. There are going to be games when you've got to throw it. We've done a good job running on occasion. There are times when you have to get the ball down the field. There were times when we tried a couple times that we didn't connect. We need to connect on a few."
Frazier termed the performance "uncharacteristic," but that remains to be seen. The Vikings are very much at a crossroads. I wouldn't be surprised if you told me they would finish the season 9-7, nor would it be a stunner if they are 6-10 when 2012 is complete.
Ponder, for one, noted that "our goals are still achievable." Allen said that, before the season began, he would have been thrilled to know the Vikings would be 5-3 at the midpoint. "I'll take 5-3 in the second half, too," he said. "At 10-6, that most likely puts you in the playoffs."
Allen paused and noted: "But that's a long way away."
Yes, a rational view of this team makes the postseason seem a distant goal. Let's face it. A 3-5 record from this point would give the Vikings an 8-8 record that seemed the high-water mark for the group before the season. There is plenty of time to prove otherwise, of course, but usually the cream rises to the top. And the rest? You're smart. You can figure that one out.