The Vikings Are Who We Thought They Were

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

VegasInsider had the Minnesota Vikings as three-point favorites in their playoff game against the New York Giants. Still, it felt like nobody outside of the Upper Midwest believed in them. Max Kellerman confidently picked the G-Men to win while wearing a Giants T-shirt on ESPN. “They’re close, evenly matched teams,” he said. “The Vikings won one. I feel the Giants will pop them in the rematch.” Craig Carton said that New York is “easily” going to win. Bill Simmons and two of his guys from The Ringer, Danny Heifetz and Raheem Palmer, summarily pilloried Minnesota on Simmons’ podcast.

Chalk it up to East Coast bias, right? Kellerman, Carton, and Heifetz are all from New York. Simmons is from Boston, and Palmer is from Philadelphia. Most teams get 2.5 to three points at home; it’s easier to pick the team you’re closer to in a toss-up. That’s what a lot of people around here were doing. But, ultimately, they were right. The Giants beat the Vikings 31-24, handing them their first one-score loss of the season. New York was also the first Vegas underdog to beat Minnesota this year, even if they felt like the favorites. The East Coasters somehow hit the Midwest and the West Coast with one stone.

The issue with the Vikings is that they tried to free solo the NFL mountain. Most great teams bring a rope and safety equipment for protection in case they fall; Minnesota tried to scale their way to the top with their bare hands. Winning 11-straight one-score games is impressive, and so is finishing 13-4 after an 8-9 season last year. But as everyone learned the hard way, regression doesn’t consider regular-season calluses. Even if you flip heads 11 times, it’s still just as likely that you get tails the 12th time. Scale a mountain without a rope, and eventually, you’ll fall.

“For it to be a one-score game with a chance to go tie that game up, it’s gonna sting us for a long time,” said Kevin O’Connell. “This team was as competitive as any group as I’ve been around from the standpoint of each and every time they took the field with the expectation to win. It did not always go our way. But these guys battled for 13 wins, and I think that there’s a lot of things that are very, very fortunate and exciting moving forward with this team currently and where we can take it from here.”

It’s not as though the Vikings hadn’t lost their grip in the regular season. The Philadelphia Eagles beat them 24-7 in Week 2, and they suffered a blowout in every other loss. The Dallas Cowboys beat them 40-3 after the miracle game in Buffalo, Minnesota’s only win as an underdog. The Detroit Lions beat them 34-23 in Motown. The Green Bay Packers walloped 41-17 them at Lambeau.

But the Vikings dusted themselves off each time and kept climbing up the mountain. They snuck by the Lions a week after losing in Philly and beat the New England Patriots four days after Dallas demolished them at home. They mounted a historic comeback against the Indianapolis Colts after losing in Detroit and finished the year with a win after slipping around in Green Bay. And they were a resilient team, one that always bounced back and won close games. Until they didn’t.

“Even until that very last drive, you think you have a chance there on that third-and-eight [call],” said O’Connell. “You think you have a chance, and unfortunately, we didn’t end up coming down with that one for whatever reason.

“And then on that fourth down, just trying to get some eligibles vertical, and the ball ended up going underneath, and like we had done multiple times, T.J. underneath the coverage for catch conversions, they just were able to make a play.”

Cor’Dale Flott broke up Kirk Cousins’ pass to K.J. Osborn on third down, and Cousins says he regrets that pass the most. He felt he should have put it more out in front of Osborn because New York was in man coverage. That way, Flott couldn’t make a play on the ball. Then he hit Hockenson short of the sticks on fourth-and-eight with 1:44 left, ending the game. He said he couldn’t find an open receiver downfield and wanted to put the ball in play. Suddenly, the season was over. Cousins said it was the most painful loss of his career.

“Every season, there’s turnover,” said Cousins. “Players who are free agents, like Alex Mattison, you play a lot of football with. Garrett Bradbury, who I played a lot of football with. It’s tough to know that there’s no guarantee that they’re back.”

Hockenson had been his most reliable target. He was sensational, finishing with 10 catches for 129 yards on a day where Wink Martindale’s defense held Justin Jefferson to 47 yards on seven receptions. Hockenson said he developed meaningful bonds with his teammates, despite joining them in Week 9 after the trade deadline. The loss hit him hard.

“Dapping guys up, not sure if you’re gonna see them next season, is hard,” Hockenson said while holding back emotions. “That comes with every year in this league, and that’s the business, but this is a special group, it really is. It may not have shown in this playoffs and how this year ended. But I’ll always remember this team, always remember this locker room, and always remember this year.”

It was a special year, but there is a reason that turnover is coming. There are a lot of aging veterans on the defense, and some players are a holdover from Mike Zimmer’s scheme. The Vikings will have to figure out their receiver hierarchy, especially who’s the WR2 behind Jefferson. The offensive line was better this year but needs more depth. The salary cap always forces teams to be as efficient as possible. But ultimately, the roster makeup has to change because no team can scale the NFL mountain with their bare hands.

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Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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