MINNEAPOLIS -- It was difficult not to feel for Everson Griffen as he trudged up the long, narrow hallway to the Minnesota Vikings locker room screaming, to no one, "What the (expletive)? You miss that?" Adrian Peterson was not far behind, slowly shaking his head, maybe not even hearing the cries of support from the stadium workers who stood still -- maybe frozen still -- as the Vikings walked by.
The Vikings had done virtually everything right for most of Sunday. They had gotten pressure on Russell Wilson and the frigid air had done the rest to his passes, sending them floating into air. They had held the ball for long stretches to keep the Seattle offense that had exploded over the last eight games standing still, the cold drifting up from the ground through their shoes into their bones. The 9-0 lead they built on three Blair Walsh field goals felt insurmountable.
It came when Wilson wasn't expecting the snap from center with 13 minutes to go in the fourth quarter -- he was having trouble yelling and communicating all day because of the cold -- and he had to scramble 16 yards backwards to recover the fumble. He looked like he was going to fall on it at first -- that confused even Carroll -- until Wilson realized he had run backwards so fast that he had plenty of time to pick the ball up.
"As soon as I got the ball, I looked around and said 'uh-oh,' " Wilson said. "A whole bunch of bears were chasing me."
They were closing in, so Wilson did what Wilson does -- here comes the magic -- and he scrambled to his right, spotting Tyler Lockett all alone in the middle of the field. Wilson threw it up -- the reality was that the cold had affected his sharpness, but this time, Lockett had so much space that he could have caught anything within 10 yards of him. Then Lockett took off. It was a 35-yard play and the despair the Vikings would feel when the game was over was already being earmarked, long before the Vikings even knew it.
There had been some sense of nostalgia in Minneapolis for this game, which harkened back to frigid games in the old open-air Metropolitan Stadium with Bud Grant. With a new, gleaming stadium set to open in the fall, this was probably the last home game the Vikings ever have to play outdoors. With time, those bitter games at Metropolitan Stadium have taken on the patina of fondness. This one may never get there.
Walsh sat at his locker for a long time after it was over, answering every question, taking complete responsibility, with tears in his eyes, for the 10-9 defeat after he missed the 27-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the game. But anybody who watched the entire game should have had that sense of foreboding that even in cold weather that was clearly limiting the Seahawks more than it was the Vikings, a nine-point lead was simply not enough against a team that talks incessantly about finishing and competing until the final whistle. It had really been the story of their season, after the Seahawks began 2-4 and lost Marshawn Lynch in November. But then Wilson had seized control of the offense, throwing 24 touchdown passes and only one interception over the 6-1 finish to the regular season.
Two plays after Seattle finally got on the board came the next installment. Kam Chancellor had been the bedrock of the defense all season and it fell to him again. The Vikings were deep in their own territory, and Teddy Bridgewater threw a little dump off to Adrian Peterson. Chancellor was waiting for him, reaching toward Peterson's powerful hands -- famed for the strength of his handshakes but also the frequency of his fumbles -- and ripped the ball away. It was Peterson's fourth lost fumble of the year and this one sent him and the Vikings to the sideline to don capes.
Not all was right for the Seahawks, not yet at least. They are still having trouble protecting Wilson -- the offensive line has been a concern all year and the Vikings pass rush gave them fits on Sunday. On first-and-10 from the Vikings' 29 came a prime example. Griffen, who had helped limit Wilson all day, had Wilson in his sights again. Wilson was in his grasp, but the Seahawks quarterback was already thinking about a field goal on that drive and about dragging Griffen out of the tackle box to prevent being called for intentional grounding. Wilson has a strong enough arm that even with Griffen draped on him, he was able to chuck the ball across his body and out of bounds. It was a potential disaster avoided and the Seahawks marched on to kick a field goal that gave them the lead.
"I thought he was going to miss it," he said in the raucous locker room -- the direct opposite, in logistics and mood, from the Vikings. "I was like 'God, please don't let him make this field goal.' We played too good of a game to lose like that."
Which is something the Carolina Panthersshould probably take note of. The Seahawks entered the game as perhaps the most dangerous team in the NFC and exited it the same, having escaped a largely unimpressive game from Wilson, having endured elements that clearly hindered them, even having survived the absence of Marshawn Lynch on a day that was built for a player like him. For a team that has grown used to playing its playoff games at home, this was a different kind of challenge, and they got it out of the way.
"It was an ugly, ugly win," Michael said. "It was a tough game. It was a blessing we got through it."
Now that they are through, it is best, even for the 15-1 team that will face them next week, to beware.
"We keep thinking it's going to happen until it does," Carroll said. He was explaining how his team hangs in on every game. But he might have been talking about waiting for Wilson to do something magical, too. And maybe it will soon apply to another playoff run.