In the fifth NFC Championship loss in a row for the Minnesota Vikings, this one - just as excruciating as any of the other excruciating ones - was simply a needless, and yes, careless loss. In losing 31-28 in overtime to the New Orleans Saints (the painful 1998 NFC Championship loss to the Atlanta Falcons was by the nearly identical score, 30-27, and also in overtime), the Vikings pushed the victorious Saints all over their home turf, but handed them the victory by providing them with a whopping five turnovers!
In the previous three road games this season, the Vikings lost all three, with a combination of - at times - listless effort and careless play. In Sunday's huge defeat, the fourth consecutive road defeat for the Vikings, the effort was there for the entire game, but unfortunately, so was the carelessness. If the Vikings protect the football, they win that game by two or three touchdowns easily.
Let's review the Viking dominance. First of all, they outgained the Saints 475 yards in total offense to 257. Never before had a team lost an NFC Championship Game outgaining an opponent by 200 yards. In fact, were it not for the extra possession the Saints had in overtime, the Vikings would have more than doubled their opponent's yardage total. When considering how many Viking drives were cut short due to turnovers, their yardage total actually should have well exceeded 500 yards.
Additionally, the Vikings raced up and down the field generating 31 first downs to just 15 for the Saints.The Vikings converted seven out of 12 third downs, the Saints only three out of 12. The Vikings averaged 5.8 yards per play, the Saints only 4.7 yards per play. The Viking defense was so excellent, it forced the NFL's best offense into seven punts. When looking back on this loss, the Vikings will surely lament on what should have been; but wasn't.
It wasn't, because of six fumbles (three lost), and two interceptions (a potential third interception was planted right between the numbers of a Saints defensive back, and the ball bounced right off of his chest). Yes, the game was played in the dead of winter, often a reason for looking to the elements for forcing sloppy play, but this game was played in a dome! It is inexplicable for a team as talented as the Vikings - eight players elected to the Pro Bowl (maybe a couple will actually show up and play), and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year not even being among them - to give the ball away a potential nine times!
The crazy thing about all of this? The most likely reason the Vikings will not be participating in the Super Bowl, is not even because they fumbled the ball six times, or because they threw what should have been three interceptions. The most likely reason the Vikings crushed the hearts of their fans but once again, was not because of a mistake committed during the heat of the action.
The most likely reason the Vikings will have to watch the Super Bowl, is because after overcoming all of the fumbling and bumbling of the first 59 minutes and 41 seconds of the game, they put themselves within place kicker, Ryan Longwell's, field goal range to win the game in regulation. The problem? Longwell never got the chance to kick.
Due, not to having to scramble around in the closing frantic seconds not knowing who was to be in and who was to be out of the lineup, but after taking a timeout, the Vikings failed to send 11 players into the huddle. The 12th player being in the huddle, caused a five yard penalty, thus taking the Vikings out of field goal range and leaving the need to pick up more yardage on third down to get back into field goal range. That third down play of course, being the final offensive snap of the season for the Vikings.
The Minnesota Viking season ended in the Louisiana Superdome this past Sunday night, not because of a lack of effort, but because of a lack of poise. In the franchise's biggest game in nearly a decade, the Vikings were... careless. Yes, give the Saints some credit, they were afterall opportunistic enough to turn the Viking generosity into a win. Not just a win however, but a chance now to do something that which the Vikings have never done. That is, win a Super Bowl.