This year was supposed to be different.

A week after receiver Stefon Diggs had a 61-yard walk-off touchdown to beat the New Orleans Saints, it appeared as if the stars had finally aligned for the Minnesota Vikings. With the Super Bowl being held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, a franchise that has had more than its fair share of heartbreak was a game away from becoming the first team to play in their home stadium for the big game. The team had the NFL’s top-ranked defense and an offense that could carry its own weight. A showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field was all that stood in their way, but on the biggest stage, Minnesota’s biggest strength fell apart.

Recapping the NFC Championship

It appeared that things were going as planned as the offense glided down the field with a 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Kyle Rudolph. But when the offense came back on the field for their next drive, Keenum threw an interception to Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson who took the ball back 50 yards for a touchdown, tying the game 7-7 and swinging momentum in Philadelphia’s direction.

After that, the Eagles flexed their muscles. Journeyman quarterback Nick Foles was guiding the Eagles offense up and down the field on the normally-stingy Vikings defense. An 11-yard LeGarrette Blount run early in the second quarter gave Philadelphia a lead they’d never relinquish. But it was a 53-yard pass from Foles to Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery with just over a minute left in the first half that blew the game wide open. With the pocket collapsing, Foles, not known for his mobility, moved enough in the pocket to launch a pass to Jeffery who had no defender within 15 yards of him.

A field goal before halftime gave the Eagles a 24-7 lead, and five minutes into the second half Foles found veteran wideout Torrey Smith on a 41-yard flea-flicker pass over Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes. The scoring ended early in the fourth quarter on a five-yard touchdown reception by Jeffery and capped a nightmare performance that nobody could have expected.

Vikings Defensive Woes

Led by Foles’ 352 passing yards, the Eagles shredded the Vikings with 456 yards of total offense on the night. Even more surprising was that the Vikings finished the season with a historically dominant third-down defense, but even that was exposed by the Eagles, who finished the night converting 10-of-14 third-down attempts. Much of it was scheming by the Eagles, with receivers getting open downfield past the first-down markers, but missed tackles kept drives alive all night as well.

Injuries weren’t the reason Minnesota under-performed, but they did start affecting a defense that had stayed relatively healthy all season. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes battled a toe injury and wasn’t on the field for Jeffery’s first touchdown reception. Safety Andrew Sendejo suffered a concussion in last week’s win against the Saints and was cleared to play Sunday against the Eagles, but he had to bow out early, too, after a calf injury.

It was a disappointing performance that will certainly irritate Vikings coach Mike Zimmer all off-season. Brought in and well-respected due to his defensive expertise, the performance was embarrassing for the team and for him personally. And even though the team finished 13-3 and had a playoff win to remember last week, the team will have the rare challenge of returning next year trying to improve their top-ranked defense.

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