EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The lilt in Case Keenum’s voice was missing as he spoke about the end of the Minnesota Vikings’ season in a softer-than-usual tone.
His eyes misted over, Keenum carefully maintained enough composure to keep his voice from cracking. There was no hiding the hurt from the shellacking in Philadelphia, though, that left the Vikings again one victory short of reaching the Super Bowl.
“You go to bed and don’t sleep, and you wake up early and don’t go back to sleep,” Keenum said on Monday in a largely empty locker room at team headquarters on the heels of the shocking 38-7 defeat by the Eagles . “That’s the what-if, could-have, should-have, would-have, but I did everything I could during the week. I prepared the best I’d been prepared. I just didn’t make the plays, and the ball didn’t bounce our way.”
Keenum committed three turnovers on Sunday night, after only nine giveaways in his previous 16 games. The Eagles turned those into 14 points on top of what the Vikings could have scored on the possession that ended with a sack-fumble deep in Eagles territory. The game was still within reach then, in the second quarter, but after halftime it was well out of hand.
“We believed that we were going to win that game, just like we believed every week prior to that that we could win the game that week,” running back Latavius Murray said. “We were capable of it. We believed in everybody in the locker room, and we had the guys to do it. We just didn’t play well, and they played really well.”
The defense that was the stingiest in the NFL this season was scorched by backup quarterback Nick Foles and a bunch of receivers who appeared to do whatever they wanted to up and down the field.
“I could’ve called a lot better game, obviously,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Point the finger at me before you point it at the players.”
Becoming the first team in history to play in a Super Bowl on home turf was the dream scenario that didn’t materialize, but the Vikings were primarily stunned by how poorly they played on the next-biggest stage and disheartened by how, after 4½ months of such strong performances, they were ultimately left without the chance to play for a championship like the 29 other teams eliminated before them.
Instead, after a sixth NFC championship game loss by the Vikings since their last Super Bowl appearance 41 years ago, the Eagles will take on the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4.
“I’ve never had so much fun coming to work in my life, never had so much fun playing football in my life, as this year. That’s not cliche. That’s the honest truth,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “So I think that makes it a little tougher, too, because you really don’t know what’s going to happen year to year, as far as a group changing and things like that, and that’s why you have to take advantage of those opportunities because you never know when you’ll be back.”
The offseason uncertainty starts at quarterback, where Keenum is the consensus favorite to return after a breakout performance that altered his career narrative following five years as a backup. His contract is scheduled to expire along with Sam Bradford’s and Teddy Bridgewater’s, though, leaving no guarantee for any of them.
“I have an inkling that all those guys are going to be starting quarterbacks in this league for someone, and they’re going to win a lot of games,” Thielen said, “because they’re that type of character guys, they’re that type of football players, they’re guys you want on your team, and they’re guys you want to play for.”
Bridgewater was inactive for the two playoff games, with Bradford the backup, a development that didn’t bode well for his future in Minnesota. Asked whether he sees himself as a starter in the league somewhere in 2018, Bridgewater replied, “Definitely, yeah. Without a question.”
Bradford was not in the locker room when it was open to reporters. Keenum, though unwilling yet to speculate about his pending free agency, made clear he would prefer to remain with the Vikings if it’s up to him.
“Just the attitude and the character and the culture they have around here is awesome,” Keenum said, “and not to mention Minnesota itself. The people here have been great. My biggest fear coming here was the snow, and I didn’t even shovel that. So it’s been a great year.”