Image courtesy of Vikings.com

The lights at TCF Bank Stadium were too bright for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, and as it has so many times this season, the glare of the spotlight blinded Mike Zimmer’s young team to one unfortunate truth — they’re not ready to dethrone the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

Sure, the Vikings seemed to be the favorites heading into yesterday’s 30-13 loss, but talk is just unnecessary noise.  “They’re riding a five-game winning streak, holding teams to less than 17 points per game, winning by running the football,” we said. All true, but meaningless once the first whistle blows and the game begins.

It was clear from the start that the Vikings are an improved team, but better than the Packers? Not yet. They shot themselves in the foot with untimely penalties, costly miscues in pass protection, and missed opportunities in the game’s most crucial moments. In a game they needed to win, the Vikings folded under the pressure.

Don’t look at this game as a repeat of their Week 1 performance, though. This wasn’t an unprepared team, or even an outmatched team. It was a team that let the emotions of the moment take over and throw off the chemistry that’s made this such a surprisingly successful season. Captain Munnerlyn, a new addition to Quote of the Week,  reflected on that point after the game:

“I think some guys are too excited and some guys have never been in these situations before. The only way to be in that situation is to take this stance, I’m glad they got the experience. You have to treat it like a normal game. We did a lot of uncharacteristic things trying to get up for this game when you just have to treat it like a normal game and let the game come to you.  I don’t feel like we did that today.”

The hype started when head coach Mike Zimmer bought the team “Beat Green Bay!” t-shirts last Monday, and the train continued to roll with every new “story line” created around yesterday’s matchup. Unfortunately, it’s time to pump the brakes in Minnesota and reflect. Where are the Vikings when on Mike Zimmer’s “winning scale?”:

1. First you learn how to compete.

2. Then you learn how to win.

3. Then you learn how to handle winning.

4. And then you learn how to be a champion.

Before Week 11, and after their convincing victory over the Raiders, I would’ve told you the Vikings were easily at number three on the list. They’d won five games in a row and seemed to be the trendy pick among NFL analysts and writers. I bought into the hype, or as Mike Zimmer would say, I “took the cheese” like a mouse caught in a trap.

It’s easy to ignore a team’s biggest issues when they’re on the right side of the win-loss column. But those issues, from a leaky offensive line to an inability to play from behind, continue to haunt the Vikings. Look back to their two other losses — Minnesota fell behind early and couldn’t score enough points to make up the deficit.

The story played out again in Week 11, and again, Teddy Bridgewater paid the price. He was sacked six times by a defense that hadn’t recorded a sack in three previous games, and despite his best efforts (296 yards and a touchdown), wasn’t able to carry his team to victory. Adrian Peterson couldn’t get going either, and his 45 yards on 13 carries did little to affect the outcome. His sixth fumble – second lost — of the year, however, ruined the Vikings’ attempt at a furious comeback late in the game.

The scariest part of Sunday’s game was the undisciplined play of a team that’s built it’s success on a foundation of clean, sound football. Entering Sunday, the Vikings were the least penalized team in the league. But against the Packers, they were flagged eight times for a back-breaking 110 yards. It was an uncharacteristic

Like Munnerlyn said, Minnesota needs to win games when the lights are shining brightest. It’s easy to win when no one’s watching, but the playoff teams, the division champions, and the contenders win no matter how big the stage. They have six games to learn how to “handle winning” before they can ever consider becoming champions.

Circle Week 17 on your calendars, we may be in for a good one.