MINNEAPOLIS -- For a week, nobody on the Minnesota Vikings seemed able to come up with an especially compelling reason why the team got destroyed in Arizona. But there was a good reason for this: Nobody on the Minnesota Vikings TRIED to come up with reasons why they got destroyed in Arizona.
"We got our butts kicked," defensive lineman Jared Allen said.
"Butts kicked," quarterback Brett Favre said.
"They just handed it to us," linebacker Ben Leber said.
And that was that. It was a loss. They got outplayed. And ... it doesn't mean anything important. This is the way teams used to feel about regular season losses. And this, it seems to me, is still the healthiest way for teams to feel about losses.
Of course, it's hard to be that way in the NFL now. There is a perfection obsession going on now. Sure, the concept of reaching for perfection in football has been around since the game's beginning, but now it seems teams have a hard time accepting less. I think it became this way two years ago, when the New England Patriots actually pulled off a 16-0 regular season. Suddenly, it was made clear that 16-0 was possible, even in today's hyper-competitive NFL world.*
*Then, the next year, the Detroit Lions went 0-16, proving that a whole different kind of perfection is possible in the NFL, too.
And if perfection is possible -- well, why not go for it? Makes sense. This year, Indianapolis and New Orleans are both perfect through 13 games, an amazing achievement -- first time two teams have started 13-0 in NFL history. They both have terrific teams with great quarterbacks and many other talents. They each have a real shot at pulling off the perfect NFL regular season. Then you throw in the half dozen or so undefeated college football teams running around trying to impress the computers, well, perfection is in the air.
So, yeah, it's easy to get caught up in it. And it's easy to forget -- perfection ain't the point. Winning the Super Bowl is the point. And it's possible that even with two undefeated seasons, the BEST team in the NFL is right here -- the imperfect Minnesota Vikings, who last week took that 30-17 beatdown in Arizona.
Sunday, the Vikings played the Cincinnati Bengals in what was supposed to be a nice matchup of two surprisingly excellent football teams. It didn't turn out nice. The Vikings crushed the Bengals. It wasn't just the score (30-10 Minnesota) or the stifling defense Minnesota played (the Bengals managed only 91 net passing yards), or the efficiency of the Vikings' offense (a touchdown pass for Favre, two touchdown runs for Adrian Peterson, three field goals for Ryan Longwell). It was that Minnesota controlled every aspect of the game. The Vikings, when they play like this, are a complete football team. And that might make them a little bit different from the undefeateds. The Saints win with their remarkable offense and a middling defense that can step it up in big moments. The Colts have a good defense and Peyton Manning, but they are the worst running team in the NFL. This is no knock. These are great teams and, after all, the Super Bowl winner doesn't have to be the most well-rounded team ... it just has to be the best team on the field over three or four playoff games.
Still, it can be jarring to break down the Vikings to see just how many game changers they have all over the field. They have the dominant running back in Peterson, one of the league best third-down backs in Chester Taylor, the Hall of quarterback in Favre, the perennial Pro Bowl pulling guard in Steve Hutchinson, the NFC's leading receiver in yardage Sidney Rice, and the touchdown making tight-end Visanthe Shiancoe. And that's just offense.
On defense, they have the unblockable Jared Allen on one side, four-time Pro Bowler Kevin Williams on the other, and run stuffing force of nature Pat Williams between them -- it's the best defensive line in football. On special teams, Percy Harvin has returned two kicks for touchdowns, and Ryan Longwell has missed one kick all season. And so on.
But here's the thing people seem to notice about the Vikings: They lost twice. They got beat up in Pittsburgh, back when the Steelers still thought they were good. And they got manhandled in Arizona on a day when the Cardinals played like defending NFC champions. So they lost to the two teams in last year's Super Bowl, and in a year when two teams are testing perfection, the Vikings might seem to be not quite good enough.
But I think this is danger of putting too much stock in the regular season, and taking too much pride in perfect records, and putting too much in losses. Vince Lombardi's brilliant 1962 team lost big at Detroit, the best Steel Curtain Steelers (1978, I think) lost twice, the '85 Bears got lit up by Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins*. The 1990s Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls ... and lost three or four games every time. So what?
*The Dolphins scored 38 points against a Bears defense that had shut out back-to-back opponents. The Bears, in fact, had given up only 39 points in their previous SEVEN games.
The point is ... a regular season loss doesn't mean much of anything. And it's a point that the Vikings players and staff seem to understand. None of them were happy to get stomped in Arizona, of course, but they just figured it was a day when Arizona was awfully good and they were not and so what? "The important thing is to not let it affect you or start making excuses," Favre said. "And I don't see anybody doing that."
No, they came out Sunday and strangled a really good Bengals team. They clinched a playoff spot with the victory, and they are close to clinching a first-round bye. The Saints with their perfect record seem likely to clinch homefield advantage ... a nice thing to have (the Vikings ARE a perfect 7-0 at home this year).
But homefield advantage doesn't guarantee anything. A perfect record doesn't guarantee anything either. Sure, it's fun to watch the Colts and Saints battle for the perfect seasons -- and they will be everyone's favorites come playoff time. But in Minnesota -- where the Vikings through the years have lost four Super Bowls and fallen short of the Super Bowl the year they went 15-1 -- there really is only one thing that matters. That trophy. If they can hold that up, yeah, it will be a perfect season.