Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Success in the National Football League is measured by the slightest of margins. An inch on fourth and short, the fateful bounce of a football off a receiver’s fingertips, a field goal that sails just left of the uprights. Wins and losses are defined by more than highlight touchdown runs or explosive touchdowns — they boil down to a team’s ability to do the little things to perfection, no matter the situation or conditions.

On Sunday afternoon, in a hard-fought battle a mile above the ocean, the Denver Broncos proved they’re a team capable of making the minute details of the game second-nature. Drive down the field and kick the game-winning field goal? Not a problem. Blitz Teddy Bridgewater and seal the victory with a sack-fumble? Schemed — and executed — to perfection. When the bell rang, the Broncos answered, and for that, they came away with a 23-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Mike Zimmer’s team, meanwhile, weathered the storm that was Denver’s top-ranked defense and held on until the very end, making yesterday’s game a much closer battle than originally anticipated. Unlike the Broncos, though, the Vikings missed golden opportunities to steal a win from a 2014 playoff contender. A missed field goal, costly penalties on Denver’s final drive, and miscommunication along the offensive line squandered Minnesota’s opportunity to claim a “signature win” against the Broncos.

No one understands those details better than second-year Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who went into Denver and outplayed the Broncos’ Peyton Manning, finishing the game with a 92.4 quarterback rating to the future Hall-of-Famer’s 68.9 rating. The stats jump out on paper, but a loss is a loss, and Bridgewater believes yesterday’s game was a learning lesson for himself and his teammates:

“We were in this game and had an opportunity to win it. We were a couple of plays away,” Bridgewater said. “This is one of those games where you have to be perfect. We know that we’re going to be in another game like this at some point this year and make sure we come out on top.”

Playoff teams win those games, and playoff teams find ways to win with their backs against the wall. The Vikings may not be ready for January football yet, but Mike Zimmer has this team heading in the right direction a quarter into this young 2015 season.

Like Bridgewater said, the Vikings needed to be perfect against a team who’s been here, done that for years. The Broncos are used to the spotlight, having appeared in four straight AFC Divisional Round playoff games since 2011. They’re a veteran team with unmatched speed on defense, a slew of weapons at wide receiver, and one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks calling the shots under center. For the Vikings, Denver presents a goal for the future and a blueprint of what this Minnesota team can become in the near future.

Sunday’s game was the beginning of that process, one that saw Teddy Bridgewater carry the team on offense and Mike Zimmer’s defense shut down what has been one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive attacks. On a day where Adrian Peterson was the second option on offense — carrying the ball just 16 times for 81 yards — Bridgewater stepped up, weathering a flurry of seven Broncos sacks to complete 65.8 percent of his passes for 269 yards and a touchdown. The second-year pro missed his share of throws early, but held his poise to connect on 13 of 15 throws in the second half, nearly leading an improbable comeback in the game’s final minutes.

On the opposite side of the ball, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, and Linval Joseph led the charge against Peyton Manning and his up-tempo offense, keeping the attack grounded the majority of the game. Save for giving up a back-breaking touchdown run to Ronnie Hillman, Mike Zimmer’s defense contained Manning’s offense, forcing the quarterback into two costly interceptions and allowing the group to convert just two of nine third down opportunities.

Highlight videos will show Bridgewater’s touchdown pass to Mike Wallace, Adrian Peterson’s explosive 4th-and-one conversion for a touchdown, and the defense’s interceptions of Manning, but those videos don’t tell the story of what went wrong for the Vikings on Sunday. They’re a team with the talent to compete in Denver, but a team lacking the experience to win in Denver. Sunday’s loss was the ultimate learning opportunity for a team with aspirations to reach the playoffs in January — a chance to reflect, build, and identify who they are in the supremely talented landscape of the NFL.

Right now, they’re a team facing fourth and short. Will they burst through the line, as Adrian Peterson did today, or find themselves stuffed in the backfield? Only time will tell.