Do you ever stare at the past for so long that you start to wonder if what you remember actually really happened?
Sorry, I'll rein in the broad existentialism and focus in on the events of 20 years ago as they pertain to one narrow slice of reality: the Minnesota Vikings.
On the Daily Delivery podcast Thursday, I was sent down a path researching this team thanks to a reader question about Wasswa Serwanga.
What I ended up finding was a brand new way of thinking about that season, that team, and yes Serwanga himself.
The 2000 Vikings almost certainly should never have been in the position they were in on Jan. 14, 2001: Favored to beat the Giants, even though New York was the home team, in the NFC title game.
They shouldn't have made it to that game at all. They quite possibly should not have even made the playoffs, let alone received a first-round bye. How do we know this? A mixture of the basic and the advanced.
*The Vikings that season finished 11-5, but seven of those wins — including six during the 7-0 start to the season that essentially carried Minnesota the rest of the way — were by eight points or fewer. Three of their five losses were by double-digits, including a 28-point loss to Tampa Bay that ended their winning streak and a 21-point loss to Indianapolis to conclude the regular season. Their final point differential for the season was only plus-26, suggestive more of a team that would win 8 or 9 games, not 11.
*At the point of the season when things really started to fall apart, injuries in the secondary played a key role. Cornerback Cris Dishman — yes, the one who gave up the overtime TD to Antonio Freeman, which yes happened that year — was injured after 11 games and missed the stretch run and playoffs. Safety Orlando Thomas missed a good chunk of the year. Both he and corner Kenny Wright were hurt during the Vikings' 34-16 playoff win over the Saints and did not play against the Giants — part of the reason that Serwanga's entrance music was queued up. Serwanga and converted wide receiver Robert Tate were the starting corners in that NFC title game. But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
*Football Outsiders, which did not exist 20 years ago, nevertheless has gone back and given all the teams DVOA ratings for that season. The Vikings were No. 20 in total DVOA — worse than the average team. They had the fifth-best offense but the second-worst defense. Their special teams were average. Of the five teams immediately below them in DVOA, none won more than six games. The Vikings won 11.
*They won the division thanks to that hot start and a ton of luck down the stretch. After winning seven in a row to start the year, they lost two but then won four. After reaching 11-2, they lost their last three — including that aforementioned loss to the Colts, with a bye on the line. They still got that No. 2 seed and bye, though, when Tampa Bay's Martin Gramatica missed a 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation against the Packers in Week 17. Green Bay, which finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs despite beating the Vikings twice and having the No. 13 DVOA, won in overtime to clinch the division and bye for Minnesota.
*In the division round, the Vikings got to face the Saints — the No. 18 team in DVOA and the only other team with 10 wins or more to finish outside the top 11 in that metric. The Vikings waxed the Saints 34-16, and everyone thought the good times were rolling again.
*Narrator: they were not. Instead, of course, they went to New York and were completely dismantled. Every bit of luck it took to get there unraveled as a fragile secondary was exposed and a team that lacked the resiliency to muster more of a fight against Indianapolis with a bye on the line managed to trail 41-0 with 12:13 left IN THE THIRD QUARTER.
Serwanga is cast as a villain that season because he struggled against the Colts and Giants, but he never would have been on the field if not for injuries — and neither he nor his teammates would have been in such a high-stakes game if not for a ridiculous amount of luck that went their way up to that point.