PHILADELPHIA -- Brian Robison, the longest tenured Vikings player, had to hold back tears as he contemplated what could have been.
The Vikings were one game away from being the first time team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. But that dream went up in smoke Sunday night, Jan. 21, in a 38-7 loss to Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field.
“To our fans, I’m sorry we let you down,’’ an emotional Robison, a defensive end in his 11th season, said after the game.
So it will be the Eagles facing New England in Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Patriots advanced by overcoming a 10-point deficit in a 24-20 home win Sunday over Jacksonville.
“It stings,’’ Keenum said. “I feel bad about how close we were to bringing (a Super Bowl berth) back home to our fans.’’
The Vikings did not look anything like the team that went 13-3 during the regular season behind strong play on both sides of the ball. Keenum threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and Minnesota’s vaunted defense collapsed.
The Vikings beat New Orleans 29-24 last week at U.S. Bank Stadium on a miraculous 61-yard pass from Keenum to Stefon Diggs on the final play, and it looked for a moment Sunday as if that momentum would carry over. The Vikings opened the game with a 75-yard scoring drive, taking a 7-0 lead with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Keenum to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
That was Keenum’s last big highlight of the night. On Minnesota’s next possession, pressured by defensive end Chris Long and hit across the left arm and chest, he threw an errant pass that cornerback Patrick Robinson intercepted and returned 50 yards for an Eagles touchdown that tied the score 7-7.
“Opening the game with how electric that crowd was and going down and scoring, that felt good,” Keenum said. “I felt like we were on track, where we wanted to be. Then the turnover was a mistake that definitely brought everyone back. Those (defensive) ends are good, that front (four) is good. I got to step up and get away from the pass rush.’’
It got worse for Keenum. With the Vikings down 14-7 in the second quarter and trying to get back into the game, Keenum lost a fumble on a strip sack by Derek Barnett that was recovered by Long at the Eagles’ 24. That led to a 53-yard touchdown pass by Nick Foles to Alshon Jeffery for a 21-7 lead.
“In games like this, you want to get turnovers for the offense and put them in positions to score,’’ said Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. “We also scored on defense, which was really big for us, too.’’
Kenum completed 28 of 48 passes for 271 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. His second pick came late in the game when the Vikings trailed 38-7.
While Keenum struggled, Foles excelled. He completed 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
Foles began the game by hitting plenty of effective short passes. He then let loose, throwing to Jeffery for the score and in the third quarter hitting Torrey Smith on a 41-yard touchdown and a 31-7 lead. That big play came after a handoff that was lateraled back to Foles, catching the Vikings off guard.
“He played good,’’ said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
The same could not be said of a Minnesota unit that had ranked first in the NFL in both scoring and total defense during the regular season. The Eagles scored the most points any team has this season on the Vikings and rolled up the most yards, with 457.
“I could have called a lot better game, obviously,’’ said Zimmer, who calls the defensive plays. “I’m going to point my finger at me before I point it at the players.’’
The Vikings had 333 yards of offense. But after their first touchdown, they were outscored 38-0 in their worst playoff loss since a 41-0 blanking by the New York Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship Game.
“They just beat us, man,’’ Robison said. “At the end of the day, they just were better on third down than us. They were better on first down than us. They didn’t turn the ball over and they had explosive plays. They just beat us in all facets of the game.’’
Robison was the only Vikings player to take the field remaining from the last time they were in the NFC Championship Game, a 31-28 overtime loss at New Orleans after the 2009 season. Sunday marked their sixth straight loss in an NFC title game.
The Vikings haven’t played in a Super Bowl since January 1977. They were one game away from ending that drought in style with the big game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We would have loved to play a Super Bowl if it was in China, but we didn’t play good enough to win,’’ Zimmer said. “I know that’s clichéd but it’s true.’’