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The Vikings Are Doom Dressed Up As Hope

There’s nothing very special about a rotten franchise in professional sports. No-good ownership groups and management structures dot the landscape, but the hopelessness of the Cleveland Browns is not so different from that of the New York Knicks. But there is something unavoidably captivating about a tragic franchise, a team that is consistently good enough and in position to break its fans’ hearts. That list is far more memorable: the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s, or the Philadelphia Eagles of the 2000s, or the Boston Red Sox before 2004.

Still more rare, though, is the team that doesn’t simply disappoint its fans, but does so in a thematically consistent manner. For the Minnesota Vikings, this means being betrayed by their greatest strength at their moments of greatest need — Napoleon blundering at Waterloo or Wolverine’s adamantium-laced skeleton turned against him by Magneto. And with the Minnesota Vikings set to play the Philadelphia Eagles this Sunday for a chance at the NFL’s first home-Super Bowl berth, and fans and pundits weighing Minnesota’s strengths against Philadelphia’s, it is a good time to remember that for this team, there is no advantage too great to be turned back against itself.

The 1998 Vikings were only the third team to go 15-1 under a 16-game schedule, and the other two (1984 San Francisco 49ers, 1985 Chicago Bears) had gone on to win the Super Bowl. The offense set the record for most points scored in a season with 556, which stood until the New England Patriots broke it in 2007. It was led by a resurgent Randall Cunningham, future Hall of Fame wideout Cris Carter still in his prime, a dual-threat back in Robert Smith, and Randy Moss in his breakout rookie season. All this firepower was backed up by Gary Anderson, the best kicker in the league that season. Anderson was 35-for-35 on field goals and 59-for-59 on extra points, the first time a kicker had converted every kick in a season. He was 14-for-14 on kicks of at least 40 yards and 2-for-2 on kicks of at least 50. Minnesota appeared to have all the bases covered.

But with just over two minutes remaining in the conference championship against the Atlanta Falcons and the Vikings up 27-20, Anderson sent a 38-yard field goal wide left. Atlanta quickly tied the game, 27-27, and left Minnesota with about a minute to pull out a win. But on third-and-3 with 30 seconds left on the clock and on their own 30-yard line, Vikings coach Denny Green chose to kneel-out regulation and take the game to overtime with two timeouts in his pocket. Green was betting the home team would have the advantage in the extra period, and that the combination of his offense and his kicker practically guaranteed a win should Minnesota win the coin toss. The Vikings won the toss, but couldn’t put together a drive. The Falcons won on a Morton Andersen field goal and would eventually advance to the Super Bowl, where they met their own sort of thematic resolution.

Two seasons later, the Vikings were back in contention, this time with first-year starter Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. Culpepper picked up where Cunningham had left off, throwing for 33 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards, plus another 7 touchdowns and 470 yards on the ground. Together Moss and Carter rolled up 24 touchdowns and more than 2,700 yards. And the threat of Culpepper’s mobility — at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds — opened up the running game for Smith, who had the best season of his career with 1,869 yards from scrimmage. The offense may not have been as prolific as the 1998 version, or even the highest-octane offense in the league, trailing the ascendent Greatest-Show-on-Turf Rams and a handful more clubs in points scored. But with the core pieces of ’98 intact and young Culpepper punching weight with Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning, Minnesota had reason to believe not only that it was one of the best offenses in the league, but that it would remain so for years to come. Until the NFC Championship, anyway.

On Jan. 14, 2001, the Vikings took a 41-0 beatdown from the New York Giants. Culpepper, playing in his first postseason, went 13-for-28 for 78 yards, three interceptions and a fumble. Kerry Collins had 381 yards, five touchdowns and two picks. Moss and Carter had just five catches between them, on 14 targets. Smith was held to 42 yards from scrimmage. He retired after the season despite leading the league in rushing. It was just one game, but coming as it did, when it did, it seemed to hang over the team for years. The team became turnover prone and struggled to find a replacement for Smith.

For a time after the 2000 season, the Vikings were victim to more ordinary disappointments: a playoff drought, the rapid decline of Culpepper, trading Moss, drafting Adrian Peterson, hitching a wagon to Tarvaris Jackson, watching Todd Collins outduel Jackson on national TV for a playoff spot — that sort of thing. Then Brett Favre came to town.

What Favre brought with him was maybe the unlikeliest of Minnesota’s cursed virtues: stability and ball control. The Vikings just needed a game manager to run a competent passing game while Peterson pounded opponents to jelly. Favre, the all-time interceptions leader, seemed like just about the last person on Earth you’d trust to hold the ball and protect a lead. But several consecutive seasons of Jackson, Frerotte, Brooks Bollinger, and Kelly Holcomb had left the team desperate.

Favre threw just seven interceptions in 2009 — a career low aside from his first season, when he threw just two picks … albeit on four attempts. But those seven INTs were weighed against 531 attempts in his first season in Minnesota, easily a career-best 1.3 interception percentage for Favre, and a breath behind league leader Aaron Rodgers, one of the most risk-averse quarterbacks on record. The Vikings went 12-4 and appeared to be a legitimate Super Bowl threat. This was a hard sell for Vikings fans who had spent a decade and a half watching Favre throw innumerable ill-advised passes as a Packer, and especially to anyone who had the misfortune of watching his 22-interception season with the Jets the year prior. But Favre held steady all season, turning Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe into reliable possession receivers, and he dazzled in the divisional round with a 34-3 wallopping of the Dallas Cowboys where he threw 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. The story reached the point at which it was appropriate to believe that this team, the one with the best running back in football and a Hall of Fame quarterback intent on protecting the ball, might actually get this thing done. The ending was never in doubt.

Tied 28-28 with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship, 19 seconds remaining and already in field goal range, Favre reverted to form. Rolling out of a clean pocket, he rushed toward the right sideline, pumped once, and threw across his body toward Rice … who was standing directly behind Tracy Porter, the Saints’ cornerback. Porter intercepted the pass and New Orleans won in overtime.

Speed past a few Blair Walsh-related groaners and we come to the present. (Walsh loomed ominously over Vikings games, but was hardly considered a fulcrum of the team.) Today, the Vikings are understood to be a good team though by no means overwhelming. Insofar as the team has a defining strength, it is an “all-time” third-down defense. Since the stat began being officially recorded in 1991, no team has allowed third downs to be converted to first downs at a lower rate than this season’s Vikings at 25.2.

The natural question is if this stat actually means anything. Is clamming up on third down a replicable skill, or a random clustering of events by an all-around good defense? The Minnesota defense ranks first in Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA, which adjusts performance for quality of opponents and de-weights early season games. It turns out that predicting future success for third downs is mainly about defending the pass, as ESPN’s Brian Burke found in 2008. And while the Vikings’ defense is excellent overall, it’s slightly less dominating against the pass. The Eagles rely much more on the run than the pass, so Minnesota’s swarming run defense is a good matchup overall. And Nick Foles is playing quarterback. So maybe any statististical emptiness on third down isn’t so much to worry about. Maybe it’s something to worry about more if and when it’s Tom Brady staring you down instead.

But for a fatalist Minnesota fan, it’s a kind of relief to know there might be a little less to the all-time accomplishment than the baseline stats say, that if things go sideways it’s more random outcome than abiding flop-sweat and regret. Originally my editor asked me to interrogate the meaningfulness of the Vikings’ third-down defense and ferret out whether or not it was an overwhelming enough advantage to propel the Vikings to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1977. The only honest answer I can come to is, God, I hope not.

CORRECTION (Jan. 19, 2018, 4:32 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Daunte Culpepper’s first playoff game. The 2000-01 NFC championship game was Culpepper’s second playoff game, but part of his first postseason.

Kyle Wagner is a former senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.