The statement was made in Detroit, but it came across as intending to be heard and interpreted with a nod of agreement somewhere in New Jersey.

Mike Zimmer's parting shot Sunday that a 7-9 season was "maybe the best we could have done" sounded less like an off-the-cuff rambling by a coach and more like an appeal to Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf to resist a regime change.

In sports, a fine line exists between excuses and explanations, and the Vikings undeniably encountered their share of tough breaks that sabotaged their defense. Losing Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce and Eric Kendricks were not minor hiccups.

However, the Vikings beat the NFC's No. 1 seed on the road, came within a failed fourth-and-1 conversion of winning on the road against the No. 3 seed, finally won at Soldier Field and lost by one point to the AFC's No. 4 team on a 55-yard field goal.

So, no, seven wins did not have to be their ceiling. Had they not lost at home to Chicago on Dec. 20, the Vikings would have a playoff game this weekend.

The Wilfs have not spoken publicly on the matter, but I don't believe Zimmer's or General Manager Rick Spielman's jobs are in jeopardy. I think they'll both be back, and I think they have a lot of work to do.

The road to redemption won't be as simple as welcoming back stars on defense. The to-do list is longer than that.

This becomes another critical offseason for the organization, in the same way that last offseason carried the theme of a page-turner. The Wilfs should start by issuing an edict to their coach and GM: Missing the playoffs again next season won't be acceptable.

This roller-coaster ride of Zimmer's tenure — good season, bad season, good season, bad season — is maddeningly consistent in its unevenness, which makes it difficult to render an ultimate judgment. There is always a surge following disappointment. Expect Zimmer to get the chance to pull off another bounce-back season.

The coach will not have some of his favorites alongside him, though. The team's tight salary-cap situation likely will force a continuation of the roster purge initiated last winter, which means parting ways with more veterans. Barr, Kyle Rudolph, Anthony Harris and Dan Bailey are obvious candidates.

Next order of business: Upgrade both lines. The offensive line needs a minimum of two new starters in the interior. The pocket caved around Kirk Cousins too many times up the gut.

The defensive line is a bigger concern. The return of Hunter and Pierce fixes some of that weakness, but even with them back, that position group needs significant improvement.

Oddly, the offense caused as much public consternation as the defense, which has more to do with philosophy than performance. The Vikings fielded a Top-10 offense with Cousins having one of his best seasons statistically, Dalvin Cook establishing himself as one of the league's most dynamic players and rookie Justin Jefferson setting receiving records in becoming an instant star.

And yet …

There is still more available to squeeze from that collection of individual talent by showing more unpredictability and better game management in critical situations.

NFL Network reported that offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is considering retirement, which Kubiak hinted at in a Zoom call with reporters last week.

Whatever happens there, Zimmer needs to self-reflect and be willing to soften on his offensive philosophy. Cook is a special talent. Putting the ball in his hands as much as possible makes sense. But easing his workload by featuring a pair of star receivers and a pair of promising tight ends in a more modernized scheme makes more sense.

Next season could bring a new coordinator and a handful of new starters. That represents more than a tweak. Not a teardown or a classic rebuild but substantive change. Change is necessary, because it's too convenient to suggest that simply having Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr back will make everything A-OK.