Before Thursday, the Vikings looked like the NFL's most endearing story, one of Adrian Peterson's perseverance and Percy Harvin's will.
Before Thursday, they looked like a throwback to the old black-and-blue division.
Before Thursday, one had to wonder why so many fans seemed hesitant to invest their emotions in a team featuring national stars in Peterson and Harvin and a good-guy coach in Leslie Frazier.
By 9:30 on Thursday night, you no longer had to wonder. By getting overwhelmed by a Tampa Bay team that entered the game with a 2-4 record, the Vikings succeeded in only one endeavor: Shifting Minnesota's focus from their surprising record to their vivid flaws and daunting schedule.
By the time the drunks were finished with their fights in the stands, black-and-blue described the Vikings' bruised psyches, not their style of play.
"They did a good job of just coming out and beating our brains in," defensive end Brian Robison said. "It's Football 101."
If the Vikings can't handle Tampa Bay's talented offense and previously spotty defense, how will they handle the Packers, Bears, Seahawks and Texans?
If the Vikings couldn't seize the advantage at home on a Thursday against a 2-4 team with a rookie coach who was forced to spend Wednesday traveling, how will they handle trips to Green Bay, Chicago, Seattle and Houston?
If Christian Ponder and his receivers can't make plays against the NFL's 31st-ranked pass defense, how will they fare against teams with two months of tapes to study their pitch-and-putt offense?
The nature of the NFL schedule prompts overreaction. Every game is an island, surrounded by days of conjecture and analysis. But sometimes you learn more about a team in one loss than in two months of winning. Sometimes one loss, like this 36-17 defeat, details a team's flaws so precisely that they obscure all that has come before.
"This is not winning football in the National Football League," Frazier said.
Here's how the Vikings' night went: The highlight was a gash in Jared Allen's nose.
In the third quarter, after Peterson's 64-yard touchdown run cut the Bucs' lead to 30-17, Allen wound up in a fight with Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. Penn popped off Allen's helmet and cut his nose.
By the time both players had been penalized and they had lined up again, with Allen bull-rushing Penn for a sack, the Dome was World Series-loud, 25 years after the night the Twins won Game 7 in '87.
And then ... it was time to go home. Emotion doesn't last when you can't stop the other team on third down.
Here's the scary aspect of this loss for Vikings fans: Their team received another superhuman effort from Peterson, another series of ferocious plays from Harvin, a downfield catch from Jerome Simpson, a timely sack from Allen, and even three knocked-down passes from Robison. And the Vikings still lost by 19.
They lost by missing tackles for the second week in a row against an undersized back. Sunday it was LaRod Stephens-Howling. Thursday it was rookie Doug Martin, a guy not even big enough to carry a hyphen.
Martin is quick, but he had not rushed for 100 yards before Thursday when, facing a supposedly strong run defense, he cracked 100 in the first half.
This was the worst kind of loss the Vikings could have suffered, a loss that had to leave them questioning the competence of their passing game and the stoutness of their run defense. It's hard to say which is more troubling: That their most obvious flaw remains obvious, or that their greatest strength became a weakness.
Frazier believes that winning football begins with running the ball and stopping the run. To stop the run, though, you have to tackle, and for the last two games the Vikings have played like someone replaced their stickum with cooking oil.
Some losses leave players shaking their heads in confusion.
Some losses leave them bleeding from the nose, all too sure what just happened.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org
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Poll: With Adrian Peterson's suspension overturned, what should the Vikings do?