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Zulgad: Vikings’ season goes from magical to nightmare as super opportunity is lost

PHILADELPHIA – Owners Mark and Zygi Wilf exited the Vikings’ locker room Sunday evening with vacant looks on their faces as the Philadelphia Eagles and their fans celebrated inside Lincoln Financial Field. Case Keenum sat at his locker staring in disbelief as a glassy-eyed Kyle Rudolph attempted to respond to questions to which there were no good answers.

The magnitude of the Vikings’ 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the NFC title game was not lost on this team. Not only was this an embarrassing defeat, it also was crushing given the opportunity that had been presented to this franchise.

A week ago the Vikings were celebrating their miracle last-second finish that gave them a victory over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional playoffs. A 13-3 regular season, followed by that improbable victory and a chance to become the first team to play host to a Super Bowl. The Vikings and team-of-destiny were being mentioned in the same breath on a daily basis.

Minnesota had the best defense in the NFL, Case Keenum had gone from career backup to the starter with the magic touch, the stars seemed to be aligned for the Vikings to make their fifth Super Bowl appearance and first since the 1976 season. The win over the Saints seemed to be an indication that all of that playoff heartbreak – 1987, 1998, 2009, 2015 – might have disappeared.

Then the Vikings came out and opened the scoring on their first drive Sunday when Keenum lofted a 25-yard touchdown pass to Rudolph. The Eagles tied the score on Patrick Robinson’s 50-yard interception of Keenum’s pass on the Vikings’ next series. Philadelphia scored on its next series and the rout was on. It got so bad that Eagles players were doing the Vikings’ Skol Chant in the second half.

“Obviously, it was very surprising,” Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said. “I didn’t expect to come here and get the (expletive) kicked out of us. So, yeah, it was surprising.”

Robison’s frustration was understandable. At 34 years old, the 11-year veteran doesn’t know how much time he has left in the NFL. He also knows the Vikings had an opportunity that might not come again.

That’s because anyone who assumes this season was just the beginning of the Vikings’ success only needs to look at the 2016 Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders. Both were playoff teams and were expected to be near the top of the league again this season. Both crashed back to earth this season and the Raiders fired coach Jack Del Rio.

The Vikings will return their key players on defense next season, but no one can guarantee the type of health that unit had for almost all of 2017.

All three of Minnesota’s quarterbacks – Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford – are due to hit the free-agent market in March and Keenum’s performance the past two games, save for that miracle pass to Stefon Diggs against the Saints, create doubt about whether he deserves a long-term contract.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who had a marvelous season calling plays, is likely to be named head coach of the New York Giants in the coming days. Quality offensive coordinator are hard to find.

Unless you’re the New England Patriots, there are few guarantees that one good season will assure success in the next. Evidence is provided by the 2016 Vikings, who got off to a 5-0 start before collapsing for a variety of reasons.

This season was different. The Vikings started 2-2 – with Bradford’s season basically ending after the opening game and standout rookie running back Dalvin Cook being lost in Week 4 – before they won eight in a row and 11 of their final 12 games.

This was finally going to be the Vikings’ year to get to the Super Bowl and it was going to come at U.S. Bank Stadium and everyone couldn’t wait for their team to dispense of the underdog Eagles and their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, on Sunday and then return home to start a two week celebration.

That dream ended with a resounding thud. This might have been worse than the 41-0 loss to the Giants in the 2000 NFC title game given the expectations for these Vikings.

Minnesota’s losing streak in NFC title games now has reached six (1977, 1987, 1998, 2000, 2009 and 2017). Three of those losses were gut-wrenching. Sunday’s debacle doesn’t join that group. Rather, this one only was shocking in its one-sided nature. The second half should have been played with running time.

Let’s be honest. It’s not only the team that has eggs on its face. All of us who thought the victory over the Saints meant things were going to be different this time also were left feeling pretty foolish on Sunday evening.





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