The NFL can be a cruel, heartless operation. The Vikings were reminded of that unforgiving reality in one seemingly routine play.

The organization got spun upside down in a split-second on a quarterback dropback in practice. A “freaky deal,” Mike Zimmer described it.

In that instant, the season forecast changed — and perhaps beyond — and Zimmer’s job as head coach became infinitely more challenging.

Zimmer is now charged with picking a locker room full of grown, powerful men off the floor and restoring their psyche.

The season isn’t over. It just felt that way amid the shock of seeing Teddy Bridgewater on the ground with a serious knee injury.

Why him? Why now? Why this?

“No one is going to feel sorry for us,” Zimmer said. “No one is going to cry. I’m not going to feel sorry for us either. I’m not going to let this team feel sorry for us.”

Zimmer did his best to put a brave face on a somber situation, but he couldn’t conceal his emotions as he articulated his feelings about Bridgewater as a person.

Zimmer loves his quarterback. Bridgewater’s teammates love him just as much. There’s not a more well-liked player in the locker room.

Or a more important player to a team that went to practice Tuesday afternoon as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And now? The odds dropped significantly.

The haze of Bridgewater’s injury makes it impossible to guess how the team will respond, emotionally or personnel-wise at the most important position.

The raw reaction of Bridgewater’s teammates provided a snapshot of the emotional devastation that engulfed the organization.

Players yelled and cursed. Some slammed their helmets on the ground. Some went to their knees and prayed.

Zimmer quickly canceled practice and sent players to the locker room, as medical staff attended to Bridgewater. The field went silent as players exited.

Winter Park was in a state of shock, a whale of a gut punch that will take time to digest.

Problem is, the NFL doesn’t stop for injury or heartbreak. Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman must address this crisis on the fly. The opener is 12 days away.

Zimmer’s immediate task is to keep players believing that all is not lost, that enough talent remains to achieve their goals.

At the same time, Spielman must find another quarterback, quickly, via trade or a quarterback currently unemployed.

Bridgewater’s backup, veteran Shaun Hill, probably can’t survive a 16-game season. He doesn’t inspire much confidence as a backup, let alone the full-time starter.

This situation reinforces that injuries remain the NFL’s great equalizer. They’re unpredictable and occasionally devastating. They can alter or ruin seasons.

Zimmer wants no talk of that, naturally. His stiff-upper-lip message already has begun.

“We’re not going to stick our heads in the sand,” he said. “We’re not going to tuck our tail between our legs. We’re not looking for excuses. We’re going to go out and fight like we always do.”

Zimmer had several phone conversations with his mentor, Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, in the hours after Bridgewater’s injury. He said he also had a spiritual talk with his late father, Bill.

“Everybody can count us out if they want,” Zimmer said, “but I think that would be the wrong thing to do.”

Zimmer provided a measure of perspective when asked about grieving players.

“Hey, my wife [Vikki] passed away seven years ago, right?” he said. “It was a tough day. The sun came up the next day, the world kept spinning, people kept going to work. That’s what we’re going to do.”

The business of moving forward offers no great options. The gap between Bridgewater and Hill feels like the Grand Canyon.

Speculation over trade possibilities or available free agents will run rampant, but any stopgap will represent a big step down from Bridgewater.

Can the Vikings reach the playoffs with a top-five defense, Adrian Peterson and someone other than Bridgewater at quarterback? Sure, I suppose. But the excitement surrounding this season was fueled by a belief that this team was capable of so much more.

The mood changed in an instant Tuesday. The NFL’s cruel nature delivered a harsh blow. Zimmer’s magic will be put to the test now.