The Vikings, with their heavy Super Bowl dreams at the start of the season, would be satisfied if they simply fulfilled the first step to that final destination with a playoff berth. Never mind that a loss to Chicago and a loss or tie by Philadelphia would also get them into the playoffs. Minnesota said all week it simply wanted to take care of business on its own.
When Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Bears was complete -- and the Eagles were taking care of their end with a win in Washington -- the Vikings were left to reconcile a season filled with Super Bowl hopes ending before the playoffs even begin.
"The game we played today is not a playoff performance," Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr said. "You can't go out there and play the way we did and expect to make the playoffs. The way we played, we don't deserve to be in the playoffs."
With so much on the line, the Vikings fell flat at home to NFC North-winning Chicago. The Bears, with first-year coach Matt Nagy, surpassed Minnesota this season. The Vikings were the reigning division champions that added Kirk Cousins at quarterback in the offseason. Chicago with its new coach now controls the North.
"I told the guys in the locker room at the end there, I said, 'Boy, it looks good and feels good looking at these faces to end the regular season,'" Nagy said. "When we played Green Bay after that Week 1 loss and to see how far we have come as a family, there is nothing like it. Now, the real test starts, everything is going to be a little quicker, and a little louder, but I am glad we are doing it at Soldier Field.
The Bears swept Minnesota in impressive fashion this season. Instead of hosting the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs next week, Chicago will play Philadelphia.
"We had a great opportunity," Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen said. "You win and you're in. You couldn't ask for a better opportunity. But we didn't capitalize and now we're going to be at home next weekend."
Minnesota will be packing up well short of its target.
"It is a disappointment," Cousins said. "I don't think it's up for interpretation. It wasn't what we wanted, what our fan base wanted. It's OK to be disappointed. I think, if anything, it will sharpen us and give us an edge as we prepare for next year, and I think that's a good thing."
But this wasn't the plan.
The Vikings lost in the NFC championship game last season and then targeted Cousins as the final piece to their Super Bowl puzzle. The biggest prize in free agency, Cousins was finally the franchise quarterback Minnesota had been searching for since Daunte Culpepper suffered that horrific knee injury in 2005 and Teddy Bridgewater followed with his own in 2016.
Cousins was given the three-year, $84 million for the chance at Super Bowls, not an 8-7-1 regular season.
The Vikings did lose offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who became the head coach of the New York Giants. They signed John DeFilippo to be the offensive coordinator and, with Cousins, expected an offense to match their league-best defense.
The offense never really found its identity. DeFilippo was fired and replaced by longtime assistant Kevin Stefanski. Minnesota ran the ball effectively in two games with Stefanski before a big letdown against Chicago's stout defense.
"I agree with that," Thielen said of the Vikings constantly searching for an identity on offense. "I think that's something we were trying to find the entire year of what this offense is and how we can be successful. There was glimpses of it throughout the entire season, but you have to be consistent in this league. You have to be consistent. Individually, I wasn't consistent and the offense wasn't consistent enough to help this team win games."
Minnesota went three-and-out on its first four offensive series of the game. The Vikings had 11 net yards in the first quarter, 49 in the first half. Cousins, who became only the second Minnesota quarterback after Brett Favre with 30 passing touchdowns in a season, was 10-of-15 passing for 44 yards in the first half.
The frustration came to a head after an incompletion on third-and-7 with 58 seconds remaining in the half. Cousins' throw to the end zone fell to the painted turf, with Thielen covered by a defensive back and nowhere near the pass.
The two were animated discussing the play on the sideline, with Cousins showing Thielen how he wanted the route run.
"It was just kind of a deal in trying to be on the same page with the route, as to what he was doing," Cousins said afterward, with Thielen saying there were no issues. "Obviously, I'm trying to throw with anticipation and trying to read his body language before he breaks, and just talking about how to make sure we're able to come away with the right play there. And he was able to communicate back to me what he's doing, why he's doing, what he needs. So, it was just good communication back and forth to get on the same page, and try to understand what we each need to be successful."
Minnesota got on the board with a 92-yard drive on its first series of the second half with Cousins connecting with Stefon Diggs for a 2-yard touchdown to draw within three points.
The Vikings' defense then allowed Chicago to go 75 yards on 16 plays in a drive that last 9:05. The Bears scored a touchdown, added a two-point conversion and never looked back.
They converted five third downs on the drive and were 8 of 14 on third downs in the game against the league's top third-down defense in Minnesota.
"We didn't do a good enough job today to win, it is as simple as that," Barr said. "The big plays, penalties and third downs hurt us on defense. Everything that we were pretty good at all year, we didn't do a good enough job today."
Meanwhile, the Vikings were 1 of 11 on third down offensively.
"We didn't play good enough to win, really, in most of the areas," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. "Had four three-and-outs to start the game on offense, and they had a big run. Defensively, we missed a gap. And so, not good enough to win."
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings' coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings