The Vikings will play their final game in Detroit on Sunday, ending this season 358 days, 2,421 miles and a figurative expanse away from where they concluded their last one.
A season that began with talk of building on a trip to the NFC divisional playoffs and bold pronouncements about staying in contention after a defensive overhaul instead will end with an inconsequential finale. The Vikings found even their best-laid plans could not overcome the most mundane football realities (injuries and inexperience) and a novel one (a global pandemic that wiped out on-field practice time before the season).
They are 6-9 heading into the game against the Lions, assured of their first losing record since 2014 and a third-place finish in a division they last won in 2017. The path from the playoffs in 2019 to also-ran status in 2020 has been marked with cornerback switches, coronavirus tests, rookie headliners, mysterious injuries and a brief playoff flirtation.
Here are 15 moments that defined the 2020 Vikings.
Offseason goes "virtual only"
The Vikings could have had better timing when it came to parting ways with five defensive starters and leaning on the largest rookie class — 15 players — since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994.
A global pandemic shuttered the team's facility on March 13. By early April, the league announced that organized team activities would begin April 20 but would be "virtual only."
Noted defensive backs guru Mike Zimmer wouldn't get any in-person, on-field work with Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, two rookies drafted to immediately fill holes left by the jettisoning of the team's top three cornerbacks.
NFL training stayed virtual only until mid-August. The preseason was canceled. And a young Vikings defense would have to learn things the hard way, which it did.
During a 1-5 start, opposing quarterbacks posted four passer ratings of 100.7 or better while throwing 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions.
Michael Pierce opts out
Among Zimmer's first moves when he arrived in 2014 was identifying free agent Linval Joseph as the nose tackle to anchor his run defense. That worked out beautifully for most of the next six seasons.
Last spring, with Joseph no longer affordable, Zimmer got his salary cap-strapped team to invest heavily in a giant nose tackle named Michael Pierce. This would be the rising young star around whom the Vikings would stop the run.
Then came July 28. The only Vikings player to take the COVID-19 season opt-out was, yep, their only prized free agent.
The team moved Shamar Stephen to nose tackle, and he most definitely has been no Joseph in 15 starts.
The Vikings rank 28th in run defense (134.8) and last week allowed the Saints' Alvin Kamara to tie Ernie Nevers' 91-year-old NFL record of six rushing touchdowns in one game.
The "tweak" heard 'round the NFL
Danielle Hunter was a 25-year-old NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 54½ career sacks when he lined up for the non-padded practice that kicked off training camp on Aug. 14.
But then he stood around doing nothing the next day. A week of that became a month, as Zimmer shooed reporters away with a nothing-to-see-here tone.
A "tweak" is how Zimmer described Hunter's unspecified ailment. Then, on Sept. 9, Hunter went on injured reserve. The team didn't announce which body part had been "tweaked," but word got out that it was one doozy of a tweak: Hunter would have season-ending neck surgery.
A once-vaunted pass rush that already had lost Everson Griffen was doomed. The team's sack leader is Yannick Ngakoue, who cost the Vikings a second-round pick in an Aug. 28 trade. Then he had five sacks in six games before being shipped to Baltimore in October for a third-round pick.
Home advantage disappears
It didn't take long to realize Zimmer's decided home-field advantage would be sorely missed inside an empty and eerie U.S. Bank Stadium.
On the third play of the season-opening 43-34 loss to Green Bay, the Vikings had Aaron Rodgers in a third-and-4 situation. Rodgers gave one of his famous hard counts and two defensive linemen jumped offsides. The Packers marched on to a 3-0 lead.
"That probably wouldn't happen if we have fans in the stands," said Zimmer, whose defense would fall for Rodgers' hard count two more times.
The defense was awful that day. But the offense also showed that as good as it can be, it wasn't going to carry this team.
After an opening touchdown drive, the offense went safety, three-and-out and interception. The Packers took advantage, racing to a 22-7 lead en route to holding the ball for over 41 minutes.
Barr is first linebacker to fall
It took until the 16th defensive snap of the Week 2 loss at Indianapolis for the injury bug to take its first chunk out of Zimmer's linebacking crew.
Anthony Barr, a trusted leader of the defense, tore a pectoral muscle and was lost for the rest of the season.
Injuries at linebacker would keep coming. Eventually, they would cost Eric Kendricks the last five games of the year and a strong case to repeat as All-Pro first-team.
In all, seven linebackers would start games. That includes undrafted rookie Blake Lynch, who started last week against the Saints despite having played only one defensive snap all season.
The 'Griddy' arrives in Minnesota
The Vikings took things slow with first-round pick Justin Jefferson through the two opening games of the season, but when he broke away from Tennessee's Johnathan Joseph, hauled in a deep pass from Cousins and eluded Kenny Vaccaro, he crossed the U.S. Bank Stadium goal line for the first time with a dance step that would become linked with his meteoric rise.
The "Griddy," the New Orleans-based dance Jefferson brought from LSU to the NFL, swept through the league as he broke Randy Moss' rookie records with the Vikings. His 71-yard score against the Titans that day — the first of his seven touchdowns this season — put the Vikings up 24-12 in the third quarter.
But the Titans rallied to win 32-31 with a pair of late Stephen Gostkowski field goals, and the game became the first case study for how the NFL could contain a COVID-19 outbreak. A total of 24 Titans personnel tested positive for the coronavirus in the days following the game. The news led the Vikings to close their facility, cancel a day of practice and return under the first round of the league's "intensive protocols," which mandated virtual meetings, masks during practice and limited time in the locker room.
Fourth-down failures in Seattle
It appeared the Vikings could avoid a third straight prime-time loss in Seattle, but a pair of fourth downs turned the game into another one-point loss.
With the Vikings up five at the two-minute warning and Dalvin Cook out of the game with an injury, Zimmer opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Seahawks 6, trying to win the game with an Alexander Mattison run instead of kicking a field goal.
Mattison was stuffed on the play, and the Seahawks engineered a 94-yard game-winning drive with a pair of their own fourth-down conversions: Russell Wilson hit D.K. Metcalf for 39 yards when Cameron Dantzler got turned around on a jump ball, and Wilson found Metcalf on a crossing route for a 6-yard game winner with 15 seconds left, taking advantage of Dantzler in man coverage as NBC's cameras captured Harrison Smith telling Dantzler to cover his guy, in so many words.
Cousins intercepted on first play
Atlanta had fired coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff — the duo that took the Falcons to the Super Bowl — the week of the game, and came to Minnesota without a win.
But the first of Cousins' three interceptions came on the Vikings' first offensive play and seemed to deflate the team immediately.
Atlanta raced out to a 33-7 lead and finished with a 40-23 victory that looked like it would effectively end the Vikings' season as the team went into the bye week at 1-5.
Four days later, Minnesota traded Ngakoue and Hunter decided to have surgery on his neck, prompting many to wonder at that point whether the Vikings could be headed for major changes.
Cook's Lambeau Leap
The Vikings returned from their bye week apparently intent on letting Cook take them as far as he could, and the running back's performance in a surprising 28-22 win over the Packers breathed life into the idea he could resurrect their season.
He became the first player in Lambeau Field's 63-year history to surpass 200 yards from scrimmage and score four touchdowns in the same game, touching the ball 32 times while Cousins threw just 14 passes in winds that periodically reached 40 mph.
When Cook surpassed 200 rushing yards the next week against the Lions, it appeared the Vikings could make a playoff push by giving the running back a bigger workload than virtually any player in the NFL. Cook finished the season with four days of 30 touches or more, the most since Le'Veon Bell in 2017.
Monday win brings playoff hopes
The Vikings had won just three times at Soldier Field in the 21st century before a Monday night game between two wild-card hopefuls, and even though their matchup with the Bears had a few of the moments they only seem to experience in Chicago (Kyle Rudolph's fumble, Khalil Mack taking a pass away from Adam Thielen, Cordarrelle Patterson's kick return touchdown that had Zimmer screaming at special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf), the defense bottled up a woeful Bears offense.
Patterson's TD would be the Bears' only one that night, and the Vikings gave up just 143 yards. The 19-13 win meant the Vikings were 4-5, a half-game behind a Bears team that had started 5-1 and right in the middle of the race for the NFC's new seventh playoff spot.
Wires crossed in the end zone
Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Jeff Gladney went one way, and Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz went the other before catching a game-winning touchdown in the Vikings' 31-28 loss. The defeat ended the Vikings' three-game winning streak in a way that epitomized how a reworked secondary was so often out of sync this season.
Smith, an All-Pro veteran, appeared to be trying to cover for Gladney when a presnap motion sent the rookie's assigned receiver on the move. With Smith and Gladney chasing the same receiver, there wasn't a purple jersey within 5 yards of Schultz when he gave the 2-7 Cowboys a lead with 1 minute and 37 seconds left.
Kendricks' season ends
Kendricks was putting together another All-Pro-worthy season, with 107 combined tackles and three interceptions in 11 games, before he reached for his left calf while jogging through pregame warmups at U.S. Bank Stadium ahead of a 27-24 overtime win against the Jaguars.
Kendricks first strained his left calf a few days prior, and was going to try to play through the injury. But he would miss the final five games of the season, a last straw for a Vikings defense held together by pins and chewing gum.
Bailey's fourth miss in Tampa Bay
Zimmer didn't want to go back to struggling kicker Dan Bailey, who had missed three kicks the previous week and three more that Sunday in Tampa. But back-to-back sacks pushed the Vikings offense into fourth-and-goal from the 28-yard line. So Bailey was brought out to try to cut into a 23-14 deficit against the Buccaneers with what should've been a routine 46-yard field goal.
But he pushed the kick just wide right in the fourth quarter, marking the fourth miss in an 0-for-4 day when the 6-6 Vikings stayed close to Tom Brady and Tampa but simply couldn't finish enough drives with points.
Cook stuffed on fourth-and-1
In a crucial game for both team's wild-card chances, the Bears caved in the middle of the Vikings offensive line and Cook had nowhere to go on an early fourth-down attempt deep in Minnesota's own territory. Center Garrett Bradbury and left guard Dakota Dozier were blown backward as Cook was tackled short of the first-down line in the second quarter.
The turnover on downs gave Chicago a short field, a quick field goal and a 20-7 lead in a game that would effectively sink the Vikings' postseason hopes. Minnesota's short-yardage running success rate dipped slightly — from 65% first downs or touchdowns last season to 61% this season, according to Pro Football Reference — and that weakness was particularly glaring against strong defensive fronts in Chicago, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Kamara's NFL-record sixth TD
Saints head coach Sean Payton pressed on the gas despite leading 45-33 with 2 minutes, 5 seconds remaining, calling a deep play-action pass as he was admittedly trying to run up the score with running back Alvin Kamara's sixth rushing touchdown to tie an NFL record.
The depleted Vikings defense gave up the late 41-yard reception to Saints tight end Adam Trautman. That play pushed the Saints' yardage total over 580, the most allowed in Vikings franchise history, and set up Kamara's NFL record-tying, 3-yard touchdown run in the Vikings' 52-33 loss televised nationally on Christmas Day.