EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Hearts were heavy and minds were burdened late Sunday night as the Minnesota Vikings made their way home after a debacle in the desert. Where to start?
They had been whipped for the first time this season, a 30-17 loss to Arizona that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
Their middle linebacker was in a Phoenix hospital, preparing for surgery after a gruesome fracture of his left femur.
Their veteran quarterback had panicked and lost his composure.
Their All-Pro tailback had stumbled to the second-worst performance of his career.
One of their starting safeties couldn’t remember the game because of a concussion.
Their right tackle had played through what was apparently a dislocated shoulder.
The entire nation had watched the crushing letdown, and already the countdown was on for Sunday’s matchup against an equally tough Cincinnati team.
Is this where the Vikings’ bubble will burst? Did the Cardinals expose Minnesota as a flawed team for all of the NFL to see? Or was it simply a horrid night compounded by freak injuries and a particularly bad matchup?
Is it possible that a 10-2 team has reached the crossroads of its season?
“I hope we respond well, but heck, we got beat,” said quarterback Brett Favre, who threw two interceptions and had two others dropped. “We got outplayed, I felt like by a good football team that hadn’t been playing very well or consistent. We caught them when they were consistent and we got beat and it’s as plain and simple as that.
“This is where you make it or break it from a team standpoint. We’ve done well up to this point. Like to have done a little bit better. But if we want to get in [to the playoffs] and see what happens, this is where we make our push.”
Minnesota will have to push on without middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who had surgery Monday and returned Wednesday to the Twin Cities. The Vikings will have to do it as tailback Adrian Peterson navigates an extended downturn in his production; Peterson has one 100-yard game in the Vikings’ past six games. They’ll probably start rookie safety Jamarca Sanford against the Bengals while starter Tyrell Johnson recovers from a concussion. And it’s not yet clear if right tackle Phil Loadholt (shoulder) will be ready for the game either.
The Vikings, of course, have taken their cues all season from Favre. Many of us have credited their quiet precision to the confident -- and collected -- way he has carried himself. But for the first time, Favre left his comfort zone against the Cardinals and displayed many of the negative tendencies he had previously kept in stasis. Favre, in fact, freely admitted this week that he succumbed to “a sense that if we didn’t score, we definitely were going to lose.”
Favre and most of his teammates played in an unhealthy frenetic style that only perpetuated mistakes and elevated tension. Even after 19 NFL seasons, Favre said that reaction is “what I have to fight against.”
“They were hitting on all cylinders and I kept thinking about that,” he said. “True or not, it’s OK to acknowledge that we’re having a tough time stopping them. But you can’t make it any worse.”
There was no better illustration of Favre’s near-panicked performance than in the third quarter, when he threw both interceptions in a span of seven minutes. On the second, Favre acknowledged he was so enraged by a rough sack on the previous play that he simply gunned the ball downfield with no regard to the coverage.
The sequence began when Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell sacked Favre for a 9-yard loss on second down, slamming him to the turf after Favre said he heard a whistle. Favre momentarily got in Campbell’s face and then, on the next play, threw deep toward receiver Percy Harvin. Cardinals cornerback Michael Adams, one of four Cardinals players in coverage, made an easy interception.
“I heard a whistle, stopped and I got slung down,” Favre said. “I’m not sitting here begging for late hits or something, but you even just blow on a quarterback nowadays, you get flags. So that didn’t happen. I was kind of frustrated. I’m not making excuses. So the next play, I was thinking more about that than anything else.
“I let my temper get the best of me. Next play, instead of thinking within the moment, I was kind of thinking outside the box and not thinking, period. It wasn’t like I was surprised by the coverage. … I just didn’t make good decisions, from my end.”
I appreciate Favre’s honesty. But no matter how many ways he has elevated the Vikings this season, that kind of ill-timed brain lock could ultimately push the Vikings’ season toward a premature end. It’s the latter portion of the yin-and-yang package the Vikings signed in August, one they hoped would remain bottled up but knew could emerge at any time.
To be clear, Favre’s momentary lapse was not the only reason the Vikings are suddenly in this predicament. Their NFL-leading pass rush, for one, disappeared against the Cardinals and left their coverage exposed. The failure had roots across the board, so much so that coach Brad Childress felt compelled to reiterate the big picture during a team meeting Wednesday morning.
“I just reminded them that we are a 10-2 football team,” Childress said. “When all the ‘woe is me’ gets going, it’s no different than wanting to put a win behind you. You put a loss behind you and you’ve got to look forward. It’s a forward-thinking business. … I don’t see any lingering effects.”
Indeed, a strong argument could be made that the Vikings simply ran into a team particularly well-built to give them trouble. Football Outsiders’ Vince Verhei spelled out that contention in this ESPN Insider piece. You’ll need a subscription to read all of it, but in essence, Verhei notes the Cardinals’ defense is well-equipped to stop Peterson and its offense doesn’t need to establish a running game to pass effectively.
Aberration or trend? The Vikings are hoping it’s the former -- and dreading the latter.