Pelissero: Vikings defied odds, but 'it hurts a lot' to end like this
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It started with Christian Ponder throwing passes in a hotel pool and ended with a Minnesota Vikings staffer helping him put on his sweater.
In between, backup Joe Webb masqueraded as an NFL quarterback for 60 strange minutes and sealed the unlikeliest of endings to this unlikely season on Saturday night.
Right or wrong, the December surge that thrust the Vikings into the postseason may prove less memorable than their January calamity -- a 24-10 NFC wild-card defeat against the Green Bay Packers that wasn't nearly that close.
They committed turnovers, botched tackles, took atrocious penalties and squandered every chance the Packers gave them to overcome a painfully inept offensive showing.
"Unforced errors in a game like this," coach Leslie Frazier said, "it's going to kill you against a good football team."
Webb led the charge from the moment his first pass one-hopped Michael Jenkins on third-and-7, holding the Vikings to a field goal on the game's opening drive.
They didn't score again until the Packers blew coverage with 3 minutes, 39 seconds left and turned loose Jenkins for a 50-yard touchdown -- just Webb's ninth completion on a night he didn't know he'd get to play until a couple hours before kickoff.
Aaron Rodgers was 23-of-33 for 274 yards and a touchdown, stressing the Vikings' zones again and again by throwing underneath and extending plays outside the pocket.
"Critical mistakes on third downs defensively and offensively just not producing first downs to keep drives alive," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It was a total team effort in a loss (Saturday), unfortunately."
Webb stepped back into a strip-sack on fourth-and-3 and served an interception to Sam Shields. Marcus Sherels muffed a punt the Packers recovered.
Ponder watched it all from the sideline, his late-season upswing halted by a badly bruised throwing arm the Vikings hoped until the end wouldn't force them to Plan "B".
"Obviously, the whole team has been through a lot, and for us to get our first playoff experience and everything -- it was tough," Ponder said. "But we've just got to look forward to next year and hopefully, we're going to have more opportunities to do it."
These opportunities don't come along every year, though, which made the obvious questions echo as loudly as the "Go Pack Go!" chants audible outside the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field.
How did the Vikings get all the way to game day before realizing their quarterback couldn't lift his arm into the throwing position, whether underwater or on land during a truncated warmup attempt?
And how did they seemingly revert to a dropback offense after utilizing Webb's athletic gifts with a series of read-option calls on that first series?
"That's the coaches' decision," Webb said. "My job is just to call the play and go execute it. "
Webb failed thoroughly in that regard, from a 5-yard overthrow of open receiver Jerome Simpson to the post to a series of wild misses before the half.
He had only 61 passing yards before the Packers went into their prevent defense for the final two series, six days after Ponder lit up the same unit for 234 yards and three touchdowns in a 37-34 victory as complete as any of their 10 this season.
Not even MVP candidate Adrian Peterson could save the offense on this night as he did so many times before. The Packers stayed patient, took away the cutback lanes and held Peterson to a relatively pedestrian 99 yards on 22 carries.
"You've got to realize how tough of a situation (Webb) kind of walked into there," Greenway said.
"Christian plays this whole season and probably plays his best ballgame last week. Just watching him progress through the week -- he was frustrated. Very frustrating for him. You put yourself in this position to go play in a playoff game. I feel bad for the guy.
"Of course, for us, as a team, we wanted to be at full strength. Not saying that Joe takes anything away from that. It's just the experience factor and the reps this season. It's certainly unfortunate that we couldn't put our best foot forward."
The Vikings went for 3-13 last season to 10-7. They beat every team in the NFC North Division. They did it with one of the NFL's youngest rosters.
Eight of 22 starters offense and defense, plus place-kicker Blair Walsh and a host of contributing backups, were making their NFL playoff debuts.
"I look at the way our guys battled throughout that second half," Frazier said. "That game could have got away from us. We found a way to keep it in striking range for the most part. But we just couldn't put things together to close the gap a little bit further."
And so the Packers head on to San Francisco and the Vikings head home, knowing well they were never supposed to be in this position -- but also wondering what might have been if not for one bruise that didn't fully heal.
Fourteen players are unsigned for next season. Plenty of others could be gone as general manager Rick Spielman continues to turn over the roster. This group, like any in the NFL, won't get another chance.
"This is the tightest group I've been a part of," Greenway said. "You can see why we made a run to get in. Excited our fan base. We had every belief that we were going to come over here and win. Without a doubt.
"When you put in so much work into it for a full season and give everything -- your body and mind and everything into it for five months, six months -- it hurts a lot when you don't get what you wanted or what you worked for. We're in the business of winning championships, and we weren't able to get it done."