There is always another generation to disappoint. The Minnesota Vikings have been losing games like this for 50 years, but they had not choked in a playoff game in six years, and they had not lost a home playoff game with an improbably missed field goal in 17, not until Sunday afternoon, when Blair Walsh smother-hooked a kick that missed its intended target and squarely struck millions of frostbitten and jangled nerves.
The Vikings’ playoff game against Seattle began with an homage to Vikings tradition and Minnesota weather, as Bud Grant braved subzero temperatures in a golf shirt at midfield for the coin flip, and it became the ultimate homage to the dark side of Vikings lore, the shadows that haunt the franchise like a child’s closeted ghosts.
If you had never seen the Vikings game or visited Minnesota before, sitting in the stands on Sunday would have explained everything: The natives’ imperviousness to cold, the fans’ whistling-through-the-graveyard passion, and the despair of a frigid walk to an icy car in weak, winter sunlight in the wake of another inexplicable loss. This was “Frozen” remade as tragedy.
When the Norse gods of disappointment demanded their periodic sacrifice of an innocent psyche on Sunday, it was Walsh’s turn to fail. He powered three field goals through the uprights and heavy air to give the Vikings a 9-0 lead, had done as much as a kicker can do to be a football hero, until the fourth quarter arrived and the Vikings’ demons joined the huddle.
Mike Zimmer’s defense had intelligently contained Russell Wilson all game, but on the first drive of the fourth, Wilson turned mistakes by both teams into the first of four game-turning plays.
A shotgun snap flew past his shoulder. Wilson turned, inserted his mouthguard, made a sliding recovery, began looking downfield as he rose to his feet, skated around overeager cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and found Tyler Lockett for 35 yards to the Vikings 4. Two plays later, Seattle scored to make it 9-7.
Two plays from scrimmage later, Adrian Peterson fumbled. Inexcusable Play No. 2 led to a Seattle field goal. It was 10-9.
Inexcusable Play No. 3 arrived with less than five minutes remaining. Wilson lofted a pass to the left. Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo dived, got both arms on the ball, and dropped it as he hit the turf. Had he caught it the Vikings would have been near midfield.
Despite their mistakes, the Vikings would not implode. Their historical failures are not rooted so much in collapse as in excellence betrayed. They would have their chance.
Another defensive stand gave the offense the ball at the Vikings 39 with 1:42 remaining. Seven plays later, Walsh jogged onto the field to attempt a 27-yard field goal. Walsh planted his foot strangely close to the ball and yanked the kick to the left, like a bad golfer trying to overcompensate for a slice.
Teammates bowed their heads. Zimmer bent over, hands on knees. Thousands of fans who had sat in the cold for four hours recoiled. The Vikings’ failures are stunning yet predictable. “It’s shocking,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “It’s very disappointing that we lost and the only thing we can do now is … I really don’t know.”
“It’s a chip shot,” Zimmer, the pragmatist, said. “He’s got to make it.”
By missing, Walsh joins the 12th man in the huddle, the Favre interception, Gary Anderson’s miss, Darrin Nelson’s drop and four Super Bowl losses in the franchise’s virtual museum of malaise.
After, in the locker room, Walsh faced dozens of questions and began to cry while his teammates spoke quietly at their lockers. As the players left, a couple of longtime Vikings employees slumped in folding chairs, looking more disappointed than surprised. Munnerlyn remained in uniform, wearing a Vikings stocking cap, long after the game had ended.
Chad Greenway said, “It can’t seem to end like this.”
So often, for the Vikings, it does end like this, with shock and despair and the wrong kinds of chills.