The Vikings can’t lose.
Take that any way you like.
They can’t lose because when you become the first team ever to win a playoff game with a 61-yard touchdown pass as time expires in regulation while the opponent chooses not to tackle you, you are playing with house money and gifted emotion.
They can’t lose because they already tried to lose, in many ways, last week, and failed. If Case Keenum’s helium-filled interception, a blocked punt and a defensive collapse didn’t doom them, doesn’t that mean their demons have been banished to that all-inclusive resort in Hades?
The Vikings can’t lose because to do so would be to diminish the importance of the happiest play in franchise history, 10 seconds that made a woebegone fan base feel lucky in January for the first time.
They can’t lose because they will pit one of the best defenses in recent NFL history against a quarterback with the gravitas of a chia pet.
They can’t lose because this matchup, this NFC Championship Game, they get to be a 14-victory team that feels like an underdog, not a prohibitive favorite looking for ways to choke.
The Vikings haven’t won an NFC championship since 1976, back when the franchise took pride in playing outdoors. No other team has compiled five conference championship losses without a victory over the past 40 years.
In each of those five cases, the Vikings had an explanation for losing, or a reason to believe that winning may not have led to a Super Bowl title.
The ’87 Vikings lost to a Washington team coached by Joe Gibbs. Losing to one of the greatest coaches of all-time on the road should not cause grief. Darrin Nelson’s dropped pass near the Washington goal line still stings, but that team already had overachieved, earning surprising victories at New Orleans and San Francisco.
The ’98 Vikings might have been the league’s best team, although Denver was exceptional as well, but the defense was flawed, and even if the Vikings had beaten Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl, they suffered so many injuries in the NFC title game that they probably couldn’t have won the Super Bowl.
The 2000 Vikings played Kerry Collins and the New York Giants in the Meadowlands. While losing 41-0 is a strong commentary on that team’s backbone, that team should never have been thought of as championship material. The Vikings lost their last three games that year, allowing 104 points in that stretch. Their defense was vulnerable to any competent passing offense, and Daunte Culpepper was in his first year as a starter.
The 2009 Vikings always will be haunted by 12 men in the huddle and Brett Favre’s interception. Remember, he threw that last pass because his ankle had swollen like a pomegranate. He might not have been able to function had the Vikings advanced to the Super Bowl.
A calamity from any category could befall the Vikings on Sunday, but as the teams stand today, the Vikings are and should be favored.
A tortured fan base is justified in asking, ‘‘If not now, when?’’
Never before has a Vikings team won a playoff game in miraculous fashion.
Not since Tony Dungy coached their defense has the unit been ranked No. 1.
None of their five straight conference title game losses came against a team relying on a backup quarterback after losing their starter, who might have won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
The Vikings can’t lose because to do so would be throwing a gift card out with the wrapping.
They were lucky when Sean Payton blew two timeouts with bad challenges. They were lucky to survive a second half that, until the last moments, looked an awful lot like a team choking in its biggest game.
They were lucky that a safety tried to tackle a ghost instead of Stefon Diggs on the last touchdown.
Luck’s restraining order against the Vikings has expired.
Now they can’t lose.
You would think.