SANTA CLARA, Calif. – They've been good for a bit of fun, these Vikings. They came into the NFC divisional playoffs on Saturday after their second walk-off postseason victory over the Saints in three years, delivering another dose of electricity to a fan base that's long been conditioned to believe it can't have nice things.
After the Vikings lost their first playoff game of the Mike Zimmer era on Blair Walsh's infamous 27-yard missed field goal, they've won a pair of postseason games in heart-stopping fashion, creating moments that will prompt smiles, rather than cringes, when they're replayed in highlight montages for years to come.
But their two most recent playoff exits — their 38-7 defeat against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game two years ago and their 27-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional playoffs on Saturday — have been the kinds of thorough drubbings that ultimately produce more unsettling questions than the heartbreakers do.
Were the Vikings drained playing six days after an emotional wild-card win over the Saints (or physically depleted from a grueling season's worth of games and practices)? Were they simply outclassed by the speed and ferocity of a 49ers defense that had answers for them at practically every turn?
Answering those questions will now be the offseason task of a regime that has reached the playoffs three times in five years, and made its case for stability after beating the 13-3 Saints on the road last Sunday. But as the season ended in San Francisco, what stood out most was perhaps the size of the gap between the Vikings and the team that will host the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
"They were a lot better than we were today," Zimmer said. "They're a good football team. I think they've got a lot of good players, and they do a great job. But on the same token, we do, too. We made too many mistakes today, and we did not execute near as well as we needed to."
The loss came with numbers that will be hard to explain away: The 49ers gained 186 yards on 47 rushing attempts, two more than the Vikings' total count of offensive plays (45). They gained 21 first downs while the Vikings didn't pick one up the entire third quarter and flirted with an NFL post-merger record for the fewest in a playoff game until late in the fourth. They held the Vikings to 147 yards (third-fewest in a postseason game in franchise history), and forced a Vikings team that prides itself on the run into just 10 attempts (the fourth-fewest of any game in franchise history).
The Vikings managed only four first downs in the game's first three quarters, running for just 15 yards against a defense that beat the Vikings at the point of the attack and used fast linebackers to close off angles. It left Kirk Cousins vulnerable to San Francisco's pass rush as he worked to convert third-and-longs, and aside from a deep ball that Stefon Diggs turned into a 41-yard touchdown, the quarterback appeared out of phase with his top two receivers at critical moments.
"They didn't need to blitz much; they got good pressure with their four guys," Zimmer said. "I mean, pressure affects quarterbacks, typically. I don't think it had anything to do with a four-man rush or an eight-man rush."
Cousins misfired on a throw near the goal line for Diggs late in the second half, in what turned out to be the Vikings' last decent chance to tie the game. With the Vikings down 17-10 in the second half, Richard Sherman intercepted a pass that Adam Thielen said "was completely my fault" for not crossing Sherman's face on his route.
The 49ers' ensuing drive was as profound a statement of their physical superiority as any they made all day. After Sherman returned the interception to the Vikings' 44, Jimmy Garoppolo handed off eight straight times; each of the first seven runs went for at least 4 yards, before Tevin Coleman strolled in from the 2.
San Francisco's lead was 14; it felt like much more.
"You don't start out by saying, 'We're going to run every down,' " 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "You just call a run to start out and stick with it and eventually we scored. Half of us were asking were the throws were on it, and we looked back and realized we didn't throw any."
Cousins connected on the touchdown to Diggs and a 12-yard pass to Thielen in the game's first three quarters; his next pass that gained more than 10 yards didn't come until he connected with Diggs for 16 with just over four minutes to go.
He saw his season end with 172 passing yards, on a day where his first 20 passes averaged just 3.7 yards in the air, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
"They've allowed the fewest explosive plays in the pass game of anybody in the NFL because they drop and force you to take checkdowns," Cousins said."The last thing you want to do is force it. When they do give you the chances, like we did to Diggsy, you take it. But for the most part, you also expect to have to chip away and just take what they give you."
And so, the Vikings head into season No. 60 still looking for their first championship, and their first Super Bowl trip since the 1976 season. Their offseason to-do list — possible contract extensions for Zimmer, general manager Rick Spielman, Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook — could maintain much of the status quo for an organization that believes strongly in its way of doing things.
But difficult decisions await a defense that slipped to the middle of the league in several categories, and an offensive line that's required consistent attention in recent years could be due for further changes.
"We have the guys; we have the coaches to do it," Thielen said. "But at the end of the day, you have to make plays in crucial situations."
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org