As the jubilant Vikings spilled into their locker room at Lambeau Field the night of Jan. 3, team staffers tossed them championship hats and T-shirts.
While safety Harrison Smith and other defenders, exhausted after playing most of the second half as the Vikings held off a relentless Packers rally, collapsed into folding chairs, all of the wide receivers posed for a selfie.
At one point, the linebackers sneaked back out onto the tundra for an old-fashioned group photo with Chad Greenway, not knowing if it was his last hurrah.
But the lasting image of the night was coach Mike Zimmer, sporting a wide grin and a gray NFC North champions hat, with his feet kicked up at the front of the team bus before it pulled out of Lambeau toward the local airport.
That 20-13 win in Green Bay was their first since 2009, which was also the last time the Vikings claimed the division crown. Last year at Lambeau, with a talented young core and their fiery head coach getting them to fall into line, it looked as if the Vikings had found equal footing with the Packers going forward.
“Everybody was excited. It felt like a big, old barrel had been lifted off us,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said this week. “There was a feeling like, ‘Yes, we finally beat these guys. We took the division from those guys.’ ”
He added: “It seems like forever ago because we’ve been through so much.”
There was Blair Walsh’s infamous miss, Teddy Bridgewater’s dislocated knee, a coordinator quitting, Walsh getting the boot, and bunch of other injuries, including Zimmer himself missing a game because of emergency eye surgery. And after starting 5-0, the Vikings have lost seven of their past nine games.
So 52 weeks after dethroning Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and six days after an embarrassing home loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Vikings will be fighting Saturday at Lambeau Field to remain in playoff contention.
If they lose, they then face the cold reality of a suddenly uncertain future, with Bridgewater’s devastating knee injury and the stalled development of other young building blocks potentially altering the future of the franchise.
“It’s hard for me to look at everything now, but I think where we were at the beginning of the season, we were continuing to [ascend],” Zimmer, the third-year head coach, said this week. “And then with all the things that happened throughout the course of the year, we’ve taken a step back.”
These Vikings have been impacted by injuries, though the solid play of Sam Bradford has helped them remain in contention despite losing Bridgewater. Injuries along the offensive line have forced them to use seven different combinations up front. Running back Adrian Peterson has played in only three games.
But if you looked around the locker room at Winter Park this week, you saw four Pro Bowlers — defensive end Everson Griffen, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, safety Smith and receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson — plus nose tackle Linval Joseph and tight end Kyle Rudolph, who also had strong Pro Bowl cases but were left out.
Of the 53 men who were on the active roster heading into last year’s win in Green Bay, 38 are currently on the team’s 53-man roster. If Peterson and Smith suit up Saturday, 14 of them will start.
Knowing there is still plenty of talent on this team, some veterans are sick of injuries being used as an excuse for why they squandered their 5-0 start.
“They put this team together for a reason,” Munnerlyn said. “Things happen. Things definitely happen in the NFL. But at the same time, we have to overcome that and win games. We’re 2-7 in the last nine games. That’s terrible.”
Roster in transition
This team has been mostly assembled through the draft. But while General Manager Rick Spielman has found keepers such as Griffen, fellow defensive end Danielle Hunter and receiver Stefon Diggs in the later rounds, the Vikings have gotten mixed results from their many recent first-round picks.
Left tackle Matt Kalil and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd underperformed because of nagging injuries and may have played their final downs in purple. Patterson, who has worked his way back into the mix on offense after lost seasons in 2014 and 2015, is likely to leave in free agency.
Outside linebacker Anthony Barr is under team control for a couple more seasons. But after deservedly earning Pro Bowl honors last season, he has been invisible this season and often has coasted, according to his coach.
Laquon Treadwell, the pass-catcher they picked with the 23rd overall pick this past April, has caught only one pass and is hobbled again.
“Sometimes guys have a little bit of a lull,” Zimmer said, acknowledging that the development of highly touted young players isn’t always a linear ascent.
And then there is Bridgewater, who in training camp and the preseason seemed poised to have a breakout third season. Then his left knee gave out while he was dropping back to pass during a freak, noncontact incident in late August.
With no guarantee that he will be ready by Week 1 of the 2017 season, or if Bridgewater ever will be the same physically after his devastating injury, the Vikings again have an uncertain quarterback situation for the long term.
Bradford, who is under contract through 2017, at the very least gives them short-term stability. His $17 million-to-$18 million salary cap hit will complicate their situation, but they can compensate for it by moving on from Peterson and his large contract.
As for the rival Packers, they have had the NFL’s most stable quarterback situation over the past two-plus decades, with Aaron Rodgers replacing a Hall-of-Famer in Brett Favre. After a midseason lull in 2016, Rodgers is back to being Rodgers with 32 touchdown passes and a 100.3 passer rating.
Winners of four straight games, the Packers can reclaim the NFC North by beating the Vikings on Saturday and then downing Detroit the following week.
The Vikings cannot repeat as champs at this point, but with back-to-back wins and a Christmas miracle in the NFC standings, a wild card is possible.
“The reality is that we do still have a shot. All of those things can definitely happen,” Greenway said. “But we have to go in with the mentality that we’re going to play our best football game. We can’t go in there and lay an egg.”
No matter what happens, there will be no celebration at Lambeau like there was a year ago, when the future seemed so bright for Zimmer’s squad.
But even near the end of a disappointing and drama-filled season, there remains hope at Winter Park that the Vikings, with improved health and the inevitable offseason retooling, will be able to reclaim the North in 2017.
“With this coaching staff and the guys in the locker room that they’ve drafted, they will have some say-so in this division,” Munnerlyn said. “These guys are hungry, and they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”