Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
When the Minnesota Vikings step on the field inside the Superdome, things will be very different from nearly a year ago when they defeated the New Orleans Saints 26-20 in the Wild Card round of the postseason.
It was the defense’s last stand. The group of players that the Vikings built up starting from the early 2010s through the entire Mike Zimmer era all rose to the occasion to hold Drew Brees and the explosive Saints offense to just 20 points on their home turf.
Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter chased Brees throughout. Xavier Rhodes played like the star he was from 2016-2018. Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo stepped up in efforts to contain Saints receiver Michael Thomas. And Linval Joseph stuffed the run.
On offense Stefon Diggs drew the attention of the defense away from other receivers and Kyle Rudolph caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
None of those players will be playing on Friday in New Orleans. The Vikings’ defense is no longer a top-five unit. Instead it merely cracks the top 25. The offense centers around Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith Jr. is the team’s top tight end.
So much has changed in one year. But the people in the most important positions in the organization have not. Following the playoff win, the Vikings signed Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and Kirk Cousins to contract extensions.
It’s hard to say based on this year whether those moves will turn out to be the right ones. The Vikings have plenty of potential for 2021 with a core of young players on defense and an offense that ranks fourth in total yards. But it’s also hard not to wonder how different things might be if the Vikings lost that game.
There were rumors leading up the Vikings-Saints from multiple national reporters that Zimmer could be traded to the Dallas Cowboys if things went sideways in the Superdome.
Remember: Even though they went 10-6, the 2019 Vikings lost key division games and entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. The expectations for the first two years of Cousins in Minnesota were much higher than missing the playoffs in 2018 and getting a road Wild Card round playoff game in Year 2.
So if the Vikings had lost, that would have meant Zimmer would have just one playoff win in six years as head coach -- and that took a Minneapolis Miracle.
The timing would have worked out in a few other ways. It was clear as the season went along that offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was going to be a head coach somewhere in 2020. The roster was sure to turn over with aging players like Rhodes/Joseph/Griffen set to be too expensive to keep and the possibility of a Stefon Diggs trade had been building since early in the 2019 season. And there were still questions about whether the Vikings should give Cousins a contract extension or let his contract expire after 2020.
Just days after the 26-20 victory over the Saints, the Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy and all talk to a Zimmer trade ended. As soon as the Vikings could, they signed Cousins to an extension and talked about him proving that he could win big games in New Orleans. The defensive players they expected to leave left, Diggs was traded and the Vikings drafted 15 new players to build the foundation for the next era.
It’s hard not to wonder whether they would have gone another direction with a loss against the Saints. How would things look if Stefanski took over as head coach for Zimmer? What might we be saying about Cousins’ season and the pending draft class that features at least four first-round QB talents? Could Diggs have been convinced to stay? Or would we not be talking so much about Jefferson’s shortage of targets or Dalvin Cook’s usage that would make Shaun Alexander blush?
Would we see the Vikings play aggressively like they have a struggling defense rather than kicking field goals from 24 yards out? Heck, would a veteran kicker be struggling to get back on the tracks?
Would they have made a trade for a pass rusher only to trade him away a few weeks later? Would they have neglected the guard position for the umpteenth year in a row? Would the No. 3 wide receiver have 18 catches?
Who knows how much different things would be. With the roster turnover and the COVID-impacted offseason, it’s very possible the Vikings would still be 6-8 and on their way out of the “In The Hunt” graphics. But you can be sure they would have been different. At this point, that might have Vikings fans excited rather than spending Christmas day afternoon thinking about the most likely outcome going forward is more status quo.
Certainly there’s a chance that the status quo might turn out to be a good thing. We have seen plenty of other proven coaches bounce back from down seasons and bring their teams back into the limelight quickly. Zimmer has never had two seasons in a row without the postseason, after all.
But even with reason to believe the future involves the Vikings building off this year as they did a 7-9 2014 season or 8-7-1 2018 season, if they don’t win the NFC North or return to an NFC Championship game or don’t retain their head coach or quarterback much farther into the future, that one afternoon in New Orleans last January will always hover over the heads of Vikings fans in the never-ending purple sky of what-ifs.