PHILADELPHIA – The fact the Vikings were here at all, a week after the miraculous finish that defied six decades of precedent, was enough to suggest that things might really be different this time, that the franchise’s sixth NFC Championship Game after its fourth Super Bowl defeat would be something more than yet another exercise in heartbreak.
The Vikings marched into Philadelphia as three-point favorites, with the NFL’s top-ranked defense against a backup quarterback who hadn’t thrown for more than 300 yards in a game since 2014. One game away from becoming the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, Minnesota had given its fans reason to believe the payoff was finally here, that Charlie Brown’s right foot would finally meet the pigskin squarely and send it soaring.
But in the end, with a crowd of Eagles fans jeering as they stood witness, Lucy pulled away the ball again.
It’s difficult, so soon after the Vikings’ 38-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, to rank their most recent defeat among their most crushing NFC Championship Game losses. But this one had to sting, both because of the opportunity lost and the manner in which it disappeared, in a game where most of what the Vikings had come to count on evaded them.
“If we would have gone out and they would have beat us at our game, you tip your hat to them and tell them good job,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “But we really dug ourselves in a hole, and that’s what’s going to make it most difficult. I felt like our fans deserve to watch us play in the Super Bowl in our stadium, and we let them down.”
A defense that had only allowed one quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards this season was filleted by Nick Foles, the Eagles quarterback who had taken over for the injured Carson Wentz just over a month ago. Foles threw strikes past just about everybody in the Vikings’ decorated secondary: past All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, past venerable corner Terence Newman, past former 11th overall pick Trae Waynes.
“We would love to play a Super Bowl if it was in China, to be honest with you,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Some of our strengths, they attacked. They got after us tonight. We weren’t used to those kinds of things.”
Case Keenum, the improbable Vikings starter who’d led them to this point after Sam Bradford’s knee injury in Week 1, had an interception returned for a touchdown for the first time this season. It would be the first of his three turnovers, followed by a fumble that set up Philadelphia’s third touchdown and a late interception after the Eagles had put the game out of reach.
The Vikings began the game with a masterful first drive that covered 75 yards in nine plays, silencing a raucous Eagles crowd with a 25-yard Case Keenum-to-Kyle Rudolph touchdown pass that came from a Pat Shurmur play call that isolated Rudolph on a linebacker. The Eagles punted on the next drive, and a fair catch interference penalty on Shelton Gibson staked the Vikings to good field position for their next drive.
It would be at midfield where the tenor of the game completely turned.
Defensive end Chris Long got his hand into Keenum’s ribs as the quarterback let go of a pass for Adam Thielen, and cornerback Patrick Robinson intercepted it, reversing field and cutting all the way to the right sideline before picking up a block and sneaking into the end zone. Robinson’s interception return covered 50 yards, tying the score before the Eagles picked up an offensive first down.
“There’s a lot of things that went wrong today, obviously,” Keenum said. “Opening up the game, with how electric that crowd was, and going down and scoring, we felt good. The turnover was a mistake that I definitely want back. These ends are so good, this front is so good, I’ve got to step up and get away from the pass rush and be smarter.”
After a Vikings three-and-out, Philadelphia marched 75 yards in 12 plays, capping its drive with LeGarrette Blount carrying Andrew Sendejo into the end zone on an 11-yard TD run.
Two drives later, rookie Derek Barnett — the defensive end the Eagles selected with the Vikings’ first-round pick after trading Sam Bradford to Minnesota — beat tight end David Morgan around the line of scrimmage after the Vikings slid their protection to help right tackle Rashod Hill.
The strip sack set up Philadelphia’s third touchdown, and the Eagles later used a 36-yard gain off Zach Ertz’s double move on Smith to set up a field goal and take a 24-7 halftime lead.
After they built a 17-0 lead at halftime last week, the Vikings were outscored 62-19 in their final six quarters of playoff action. They will end the season with the typical round of questions prompted by these kinds of playoff defeats — about what they could have done differently, about what they will do next with Shurmur likely becoming the New York Giants’ next head coach and three quarterbacks set to hit free agency.
But before the questions start, they will have to contend with the revulsion over what they lost.
There will be no home Super Bowl for the Vikings, in a market that is set to host the game for the first time since 1992 and might not see it again for years. Instead, a heartbroken metropolis will be asked to put on its happy face and dole out Northern hospitality for two boisterous fan bases: Patriots fans coming to watch their team play its eighth Super Bowl in 16 years and Eagles fans who spent much of the second half mocking the Vikings’ “Skol” chant, repurposing it as “Foles.”
The payoff will perhaps come someday. But on Sunday, Vikings fans were left with a sickening feeling that was at once fresh and familiar.
“It’s not going to be very fun watching them come to Minnesota and play in our stadium for a Super Bowl we feel like we should be in,” Rudolph said. “It’s always harder when you don’t live up to your potential, and I feel like this team had the potential to be playing in that game.”