MINNEAPOLIS—The Minnesota Vikings spent Sunday celebrating a team that broke everybody's heart, which was sort of an awkward way to begin a season with high expectations. The 1998 team was on display, lauded for finishing 15-1 in the regular season.
Former heroes like Robert Smith and John Randle were introduced at halftime, there were video highlights galore of Randy Moss, fans were teased with trivia questions of that year. It was a championship-level 20th anniversary party.
Just one problem, of course. There was no championship to celebrate. The Vikings lost in the NFC Championship game that season to the Atlanta Falcons, a dark ending notoriously missing from the festivities at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"Oh, yes. I absolutely remember that season. That was my prime football watching days," said 28-year-old Vikings receiver and Detroit Lakes, Minn., native Adam Thielen. "Watching Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed. I've talked about this before, but those are the guys that made me want to be a football player."
Thielen claims no scars from that season, nor from the way the Vikings ended last year—with another NFC title game loss, this time a walloping at Philadelphia. His performance in Minnesota's 24-16 season-opening victory over the San Francisco 49ers would indicate that. Thielen caught six passes for a game-high 102 yards, establishing himself as a prime target for new Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
A highly anticipated season is off to a promising 1-0 start. But it was hardly smooth and not at all even.
The Vikings, picked by most as a Super Bowl contender from the NFC, have a ways to go if they want to bury the ghosts of 1998.
Look at it this way: The most crucial offensive play of the fourth quarter, with the Vikings nursing a one-score lead and trying to keep the ball away from the Niners, was a boneheaded neutral zone infraction on San Francisco defensive end Solomon Thomas, who jumped across the line of scrimmage with 1 second left on the play clock. It gave the Vikings a first down and killed San Francisco's hope for a comeback.
Cousins showed flashes of brilliance, dropping perfect touchdown throws to receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph, but the offense disappeared for most of the fourth quarter. And Cousins made a play that can only be described as dangerous when he lowered his head scrambling in the fourth quarter, meeting a 49ers defender just short of a first down.
It was not a play any quarterback should make, much less one with an $84 million contract and the heft of a franchise on his shoulders.
"I asked him, 'What are you doing? Just relax. We need you the whole season,'" Thielen said.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph was more forgiving.
"That's gutsy," Rudolph said. "I've talked all off-season how much of a competitor he is. A lot of guys wouldn't have done that. He did everything he could to extend the drive. Obviously he didn't get the first down, but he put us in a situation where it was fourth and short ... and we got the guy to jump offsides and we were able to run down the clock."
Minnesota's defense was mostly spectacular again, despite a stretch in the third quarter when it gave up a handful of big pass plays that triggered flashbacks to the final six playoff quarters of last season against New Orleans and Philadelphia. But the NFL's Next Big Star Quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, was flustered into throwing three interceptions and getting sacked three times. Rookie Mike Hughes returned one pick for a touchdown. Safety Harrison Smith recovered a key fumble at the goal line and had an interception.
"We looked at a stat where they were 18-2 when they won the turnover battle and 3-6 when they lost it," 49ers tight end George Kittle said. "If you win the turnover battle, you have a better chance to win. If you don't, it hurts. We were still in it and we lost by three turnovers."
These Vikings are good, no doubt. But they have room to improve before being good enough to rip out the hearts of their fan base with an unexpected playoff loss like the 1998 team did.