Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had been talking about the ups and downs of the 2019 season when he was asked to put a finger on what the heck disappeared in the six days between the highest of the highs against a 13-win team in New Orleans to the season-ending lowest of the lows against a 13-win team in San Francisco.
“We kind of ran into a buzz saw a little bit, I think,” Zimmer said Monday, two days after the 27-10 divisional playoff loss to the 49ers. “We didn’t look as fresh in that ballgame as we did the week before. Obviously, I’m not making any excuses. They’re a good football team.”
It’s not an excuse. It’s fact. And not the alternative kind.
An older team simply did not look fresh playing a rested No. 1 seed on the West Coast six days after a 26-20 overtime victory in New Orleans.
That’s not letting Zimmer off the hook. His team was good enough to garner a bye week but earned its exhaustion-inducing sixth seed by going 2-4 in the division and losing to a slumping Chiefs team that was missing six starters, including reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Yes, the Vikings could have done what Tennessee did. The AFC’s No. 6 seed went into Baltimore as a 10-point underdog and throttled the hottest team in football with 217 yards rushing on 37 carries (5.9 yards per carry).
But do you know how rare a win like that is, even in this so-called “crazy league”?
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, road teams are 56-142 (28.3%) in the divisional round. Since 2011, they’re 8-28 (22.2%).
This year, the divisional road teams went 1-3 and are 1-7 the past two years. In 50 seasons of divisional games, home teams have now gone 3-1 or better 35 times.
The 49ers might have beaten the Vikings with both teams rested. But they needn’t apologize for earning that rest. Or the fact the Vikings played a season-high 135 snaps — including 79 on offense — only six days earlier.
“We emptied our bucket pretty good the week before, maybe that had something to do with it,” Zimmer said. “Maybe it was the short week. Maybe it was [the 49ers]. They got after us pretty good. We didn’t run the ball very effectively. We didn’t stop the run near as well as we needed to. It could have been a lot of factors.”
Zimmer said he turned to his Hall of Fame mentor, Bill Parcells, for advice on Monday.
“I was on the phone with Coach Parcells for an hour,” Zimmer said. “Just talking about trying to get over the hump of we’ve been to the conference championship, we’ve been to the divisional game, we’ve been in a wild-card game where we lost by a field goal, and just trying to figure out how do we get over this hump of getting to the next level and eventually winning this thing.”
This year, the hump can be traced to the regular season.
There was a hump at Green Bay when Packers rookie offensive-minded coach Matt LaFleur was guiding his team to 21 points in his first three drives against the veteran defensive-minded Zimmer. Zimmer shut LaFleur down after that, but it was too late.
There was a hump in Chicago, where the Vikings have a mental block that’s bigger than Linval Joseph.
There was a hump in Kansas City, where the Chiefs had lost three of four and were starting Matt Moore.
There was a hump in Seattle. Naturally.
And there was another hump against the Packers at home in prime time. This time, Zimmer’s defense started fast, forcing three turnovers in 26 minutes, only to have the offense not show up.
“There were games this year when the offense was phenomenal, games when the defense was phenomenal and a couple games where the special teams did their thing,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “Sometimes, two out of the three would be clicking. But very rarely did you see all three phases click at the same time. It just says that we still have a couple steps to go.”
This year, the 49ers went from 4-12 to No. 1 seed. In 2015, the Panthers went from 7-8-1 to 15-1, No. 1 seed and a Super Bowl berth. In 2017, the Eagles went from 7-9 to 13-3, No. 1 seed and a Super Bowl victory.
Clearly, the next step for this leg-weary Vikings team must include earning the No. 1 seed and not having to leave the Twin Cities.
Of course, that doesn’t quite guarantee anything (see: 1998).