'This opportunity doesn't come often': Vikings look to avoid letdown at 49ers after emotional playoff win

Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates with Adam Thielen #19 after defeating the New Orleans Saints 26-20 during overtime in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 05, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. ((Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images))

There’s been a lot of talk about embracing the opportunity and moving on from an emotional win as the Minnesota Vikings prepare to take on the San Francisco 49ers, the NFC’s top seed, in the divisional playoffs on Saturday.

The situation and the stakes are eerily similar to the 2018 NFC Playoffs, following a 13-3 season. Rewind two years, and Case Keenum hits Stefon Diggs for a walk-off touchdown known across the football landscape as the “Minneapolis Miracle.”

It put them in the NFC Championship Game, with the Super Bowl in their home stadium two weeks later. Until it all came crashing down. We all know what went down: Kyle Rudolph scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the game at Philadelphia, and it was the Vikings’ only points of the game.

The Eagles dominated from there with a 38-7 victory, on the way to beating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Vikings never fully got off the emotional high from the walk-off touchdown, they lacked focus in the week leading up to the NFC title game and what followed was one of the worst losses in franchise history.

That’s why the Vikings kept their celebration Sunday after beating the Saints short and sweet. There’s still work to do.

“I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t learn from two years ago. It’s an opportunity for us to realize that hey, the last time we won on the last play of the game and we had a huge emotional victory, we went and laid an egg the following week,” Rudolph said. “It was a big win for us, but it’s just the first step in the direction that we’re trying to get going. Going to San Francisco this week is the next step.”

The Vikings current roster features nine starters on defense that played in the NFC title game loss to the Eagles. Nick Foles picked them apart, at the time the back-up to Carson Wentz, did whatever he wanted for 352 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings had one of the best run defenses in the NFL that year, and the Eagles ran for 110 yards on them.

Danielle Hunter was candid earlier this week in saying the team sat on the euphoria of the “Minneapolis Miracle” for too long, and it cost them. An overtime win has them one win away from playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, and they have to embrace an opportunity that simply doesn’t present itself with regularity.

Hunter has been busy terrorizing opposing offenses and quarterbacks all season. He has 15.5 sacks and is the youngest in NFL history to record at least 50 sacks in his first five seasons. He gets his chance against Jimmy Garoppolo on Saturday.

“This opportunity, it doesn’t come often. It’s the playoffs, you have some people that’s been in this league X amount of years and they’ve never made the playoffs,” Hunter said. “So it’s an experience that we know we have to be focused and know this opportunity doesn’t come around often.”

The circumstances are slightly different this week. Rudolph’s overtime touchdown last week sent the Vikings to the divisional round, while Hall of Famer Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense stood and watched from the sideline. The Vikings won’t be returning to U.S. Bank Stadium this season, and they still need two more wins to reach the Super Bowl.

There’s still a lot to be accomplished. The Vikings have six offensive starters from 2017 on the current roster, making 15 total who felt the true pain of getting so close to a Super Bowl, yet saw it all come crashing down.

Dalvin Cook didn’t play in the 2018 NFC title game, but he witnessed it while rehabbing a torn ACL in his rookie season. Cook had 130 total yards and two touchdowns last Sunday against the Saints in his first career playoff game. He said Wednesday there wasn’t much celebration over their second time beating New Orleans in walk-off fashion. There’s more on the table.

“Putting that behind us knowing it’s a different team, different identity. We’ve got a different approach, it’s different guys in the locker room, different mindset,” Cook said. “We’ve got to leave that in the past and know it’s a hungry group, a bunch that’s in here ready to go fight any environment.”

Cook’s road roommate and fullback C.J. Ham, who does the dirty work in clearing a path for Cook on the field, said it’s about embracing the opportunity. Only 12 teams make the playoffs, and only eight are left.

That will be cut in half by Sunday night.

“There’s a lot of people around the league, even veterans on this team who haven’t really made it this far. You can’t take these moments for granted,” Ham said. “These playoff games are extremely important, you’ve got to make the most of them.”

The parallels are hard to ignore. Walk-off touchdowns in huge moments. It’s the NFL Playoffs, where it’s about surviving and advancing. One team gets a step closer to the Super Bowl, while the other is cleaning out lockers the next week and wondering what might have been.

The Vikings aren’t basking much in the euphoria of their latest win that had fans sweating, sitting on the edge of their seats. Celebrate too much, and you’ll get hit in the mouth. Then your season is over.

“That’s the NFL, you’ve got to know how to digest things quickly, whether it’s a win or a loss. You can’t never take none of them to heart,” Cook said.

The Vikings had to learn that the hard way, and nobody knows it more than Rudolph. He’s got seven touchdowns this season, and who knows how many more seasons the nine-year veteran has left.

“We were all there two years ago when we had the greatest win ever and thought we were destined to win the Super Bowl and it was in our own stadium and we laid an egg. I think it’s the veterans in this locker room that know that that know, look, we’ve got to put that behind us. It’s just the first step,” Rudolph said. “It’s a good win, certainly glad we’re still playing but we need to go out and play well in San Francisco or it’s going to be over just like that.”

The 49ers are the next step, and a win Saturday gets them one step closer to playing in the Super Bowl in Miami a month from now.