The sting of falling one step short of being the first team to play the Super Bowl in its own stadium will last a while and will be acerbated when thousands of Philadelphia Eagles fans frolic through the streets of Minneapolis in the week leading up to Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But when Sunday’s 38-7 loss at Philadelphia does indeed fade into preparations for the 2018 season, the Minnesota Vikings will be a young, talented defensive-oriented team that will contend for Super Bowl LIII.
“Right now, you don’t really think about the entire year as a whole,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said on Monday. “I think I spent the entire plane ride home, and probably a couple hours in bed, thinking about the plays I could have made or routes I could have ran differently. That’s just how it always is. It doesn’t really matter what happens throughout the season; you only really remember the last play that you ran. It will be a good learning experience, and we’ll have to use this to our advantage moving forward.”
Moving forward, the Vikings have 10 defensive starters under contract – everyone except tackle Tom Johnson — and expect a full return to health for rookie Dalvin Cook, who had the makings of being the team’s most dynamic player before tearing an ACL in Week 4.
But, naturally, the team’s biggest offseason talker will be what to do at the quarterback position. The top three quarterbacks – Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater – will become free agents unless one of them receives a franchise tag or signs a new contract prior to the start of the league year on March 14.
There are arguments for and against all three becoming the quarterback going forward.
Bradford played one of his best games in the season opener. But he injured the left knee that’s bothered him for years and missed all but two quarters the rest of the season.
Keenum went 12-2 in relief of Bradford and threw the “Minneapolis Miracle” touchdown pass that won the team’s first playoff game in eight years. But he’s a career journeyman with limited arm strength and is less likely to be the guy who can carry a team the way franchise quarterbacks are paid to do.
And Bridgewater showed he could return from the devastating knee injury that knocked him out of the entire 2016 season. But he looked rusty in his one half of action and was inactive in the playoffs as the Vikings went with Bradford as their backup.
The Vikings also will need to replace offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was officially named head coach of the Giants the day after the loss to the Eagles. Shurmur did an outstanding job keeping the Vikings in the top 10 offensively despite the losses of Bradford and Cook, as well injuries up front that forced eight different offensive line combinations this year.
“In the NFL, a lot of stuff happens all the time,” safety Harrison Smith said. “We’ll see where we’re at. We didn’t play at a high level when it counted (Sunday).”
–Cornerback Terence Newman didn’t have trouble putting his finger on what gave the Vikings’ vaunted No. 1-ranked defense problems on Sunday.
“Everything they did gave us trouble,” he said. “Let’s be honest. They had some runs. They had some throws. Everything they did gave us fits. They put up (456) yards. So, I’m not going to sit here and tell you, ‘Hey, it was this or it was that.’ They did everything.”
Asked how that could be possible considering how well the defense played and how big the stakes were, Newman said, “I’d have to look at the film to see, but it was kind of like we had no energy. We started off pretty quick and then things just went downhill. It didn’t seem like we had a whole lot of energy. It was like they wanted it more.”
REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES
–PASSING OFFENSE: D – It was all downhill after the game-opening drive ended with a 25-yard Case Keenum touchdown pass to TE Kyle Rudolph. Keenum had 20 incompletions in 48 attempts, threw two interceptions, including a pick-six that evened the score at 7-7. The pick-six wasn’t all Keenum’s fault. Defensive end Chris Long hit Keenum’s arm after beating right tackle Rashod Hill off the edge. Leading receiver Adam Thielen, battling small fractures in his back, was held to three catches in nine targets for 28 yards. Rudolph didn’t catch another ball after that touchdown.
–RUSHING OFFENSE: D – The game-opening touchdown drive was a well-balanced attack that featured six rushes for 27 yards and two first downs. After that, the Vikings gained only 43 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 12 carries.
–PASS DEFENSE: F – The Vikings lacked energy and were a step behind whatever Nick Foles and the Eagles threw at them. Foles, who was supposed to be the Achilles’ heel in this contest, threw for 352 yards with just seven incompletions. He was sacked only once while throwing three touchdowns, no interceptions and posting a 141.4 passer rating. Foles had touchdown passes of 53 and 41 yards off a flea-flicker. Strong safety Harrison Smith, a first-team All-Pro, had his worst game of the year, as many of his teammates also did. He and Terence Newman were beaten on the 53-yard touchdown to Alshon Jeffery. He and Trae Waynes were beaten on the flea-flicker. And Smith was beaten on a 36-yard catch by TE Zach Ertz that set up a field goal right before halftime. The safeties couldn’t contain Ertz, who caught eight of eight balls targeted to him for 93 yards.
–RUSH DEFENSE: D – It wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn’t pretty either. The Eagles’ second touchdown came when LeGarrette Blount got through the line and ran over strong safety Andrew Sendejo at the 5-yard line on an 11-yard touchdown. Jay Ajayi averaged 4.1 yards on 18 carries. As a team, the Eagles ran for 110 yards on 30 carries (3.7 average).
–SPECIAL TEAMS: C – Special teams didn’t play much of a role in this game. There were no kickoff returns on either side, only one punt return for 10 yards by the Eagles, and Kai Forbath attempted no field goals and was good on his only extra point. Punter Ryan Quigley, who didn’t have a touchback during the regular season, had one for the second straight playoff game.
–COACHING: F – Granted, it’s harder to play at Lincoln Financial Field than U.S. Bank Stadium. But this effort after the first two possessions was pathetic. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who is heading to New York as the Giants’ next head coach, got off to a great start with a well-balanced 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game. The defense then forced a punt. But the energy left this team on the ensuing possession, when Keenum threw the pick-six. Mike Zimmer’s defense, which set a record for lowest third-down conversion rate (25.2) during the regular season, allowed the Eagles to convert 10 of 14 third downs, including two for touchdowns. The defense lacked energy in the pass rush and was off-balance in coverage the rest of the day. Doug Pederson deserves credit for throwing some new wrinkles at the Vikings, including the flea-flicker that produced the 41-yard touchdown.
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(photo courtesy of Vikings.com)