In a jubilant visitors’ locker room at the Superdome on Sunday, the voices of several Vikings veterans broke through the postgame celebration with a sobering reminder: There was another game to play in six days.
The Vikings will head into their NFC divisional playoff game with the 49ers on Saturday much in the same manner they arrived in the NFC Championship Game two years ago: following a touchdown on the last play of a game against the Saints to give the Vikings an emotional victory.
The manner by which they won two years ago — Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown as time expired — was more stunning than the overtime drive they put together in Sunday’s wild-card victory. The Vikings’ joyous reaction to Diggs’ TD spilled into the day after the game, which seemed understandable given its magnitude. But as coach Mike Zimmer reflected on their 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the NFC title game the following week, he wondered if the nature of the win over the Saints left the Vikings too emotionally drained to respond.
So now, two years after the Minneapolis Miracle, what might be the greatest single moment in Vikings history serves as a cautionary tale for the 2019 team.
“A lot of the guys that are here were here before,” Zimmer said. “I feel like they’re a veteran team. They understand. We actually had a couple guys saying [Sunday]: ‘Hey, calm down, we’ve got to get ready to go play again.’ I’m hopeful it is like that.”
The Vikings will be the only team in the divisional playoffs that’s on a short week of rest, after the NFL put both AFC wild-card games Saturday and both NFC games Sunday. They will travel to the West Coast for the third time in six weeks, facing a 13-3 team for the second week in a row, and try to win as 6 ½-point underdogs after beating a 7½-point favorite in New Orleans.
“This team seems to play better when we have something to prove,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said after the Saints game. “That’s just the mentality of this locker room. That’s the kind of guys we have. It’s going to be that way for the rest of the run, and we’ve got to get back to work, because we’ve got a short week and we’re on to San Francisco to [play] the one seed.”
Zimmer said the Vikings will have to manage players’ workloads throughout the week, and as they get back to work with a Tuesday practice before flying to California at the end of the week, it’s easy to see why home teams have enjoyed such an advantage in the divisional playoffs in recent years. Since 2010, the teams that earned a bye week as one of the top two seeds in the conference are 27-9 in the divisional round, reaping the benefits of playing at home against an opponent that had to fight to get there.
Asked when he will know whether the Vikings are ready to handle the task of returning from the Saints game and readying themselves for San Francisco, Zimmer responded, “Probably Saturday night.”
While he won’t have any certainty until game time Saturday, he is counting on experience being a valuable teacher.
“It is [difficult]. I’m not saying it’s not,” he said of the turnaround from New Orleans to San Francisco. “It’s similar to playing a Monday night game and then you have to get ready for a Sunday game. Obviously, we’re going out to the West Coast, so that’ll be a little bit different. But hey, it’s playoff time. It’s big boy football now.”