The 2019 Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers simply did not belong on the same field as the San Francisco 49ers. That became obvious the past two weeks as the Niners steamrolled the Vikings (27-10) and Packers (37-20) in the NFC Divisional playoffs and conference championship game, respectively.
What’s my point in writing this? There are two of them.
The first is that as football fans — and stripping away allegiance to a specific team — we are getting the Super Bowl we should want. The NFC’s top-seed, the 49ers, against the AFC’s second-seed, the Kansas City Chiefs, should provide a marvelous game in two weeks. The presence of the Tennessee Titans, Packers or Vikings would have come by some type of fluke that could have led to an awful Super Bowl that nobody wanted to see.
The second point — and the one that hurts if you’re a Vikings fan — is that the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl because they pounced on their opportunity to make it. We often talk about windows in the NFL being open, but unless you’re the New England Patriots you can’t count on that. Too much can go wrong from year-to-year to believe a window will remain open for any period of time.
I’ve covered the Vikings since the 2005 season and in that time the Vikings have had two teams that looked ready to make legitimate Super Bowl runs. The obvious one was the 2009 team that appeared to have “the pieces in place” after Brett Favre came aboard near the end of training camp. That team went 12-4 as Favre had an MVP-worthy season and then outplayed the host Saints in the NFC title game before losing in overtime.
It’s safe to say that while the Vikings weren’t the top seed in the NFC that season they had the best team in the conference and could easily have won a Super Bowl. The 2009 season also provided a good lesson in the problem with assuming a team’s window would be open for any amount of time. The Vikings returned in 2010 with almost every starter back, including Favre after his late decision to come back, and finished 6-10. That team’s freefall cost Brad Childres his head coaching job in November.
The failure of the 2009 Vikings to hold onto the football in the NFC title game (three fumbles, two interceptions) slammed their window of opportunity shut without them even knowing it.
The 2017 Vikings appeared to be on a magical ride, going 13-3 with backup quarterback Case Keenum leading the way, and the feeling that it was a special season became even stronger when Keenum’s last-second pass in regulation beat the Saints in the NFC divisional round at U.S. Bank Stadium. But that all came crashing down in a 31-point loss to Philadelphia in the NFC title game.
The Vikings’ brass thought they were throwing the window wide open to championship opportunities the following spring when they signed free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins to replace Keenum. They learned another tough lesson in the process. The Vikings went 8-7-1 in Cousins’ first season, missing the playoffs, and then were bounced in the second round this season after going 10-6 in the regular season.
The reality of this season was the Vikings never felt like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The playoff victory over the Saints in the Superdome briefly had us fooled but the 49ers made sure to straighten that out. Both the Vikings and Packers got into double-digit win totals in large part because they beat up on a lot of bad teams.
So when will the Vikings feel like a team that can get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1976 season? That’s difficult to say since Cousins will be returning for a third season in 2020 and there are so many unknowns when it comes to the Vikings’ roster.
This is why seasons like 1998 and 2009 leave such a lasting impression on Vikings fans. Those were teams that at the very least were supposed to get to the Super Bowl and easily could have walked away with the Lombardi Trophy. The failure to do so, while disappointing at the time, created great expectations. The problem is if you don’t capitalize in the now, those great expectations can end in even greater disappointment.