Where did it go wrong for the Eagles, who played a Minnesota team at Mall Of America Field minus running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, three of its best cornerbacks, a starting guard and a starting tight end?
"I don't have an explanation," said linebacker Connor Barwin in a disappointed locker room. "All I know is that they played a lot better than we did. It's disappointing, and we all know that. We had a chance to win this game and we let it get away. We just couldn't get off the field."
Right from the very beginning of the game, the Eagles defense had trouble against Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, and the secondary could not contain Minnesota's talented group of wide receivers, particularly Greg Jennings. Minnesota's game plan was predictable: some short passes, runs to keep the Eagles defense honest and a few defense-stretching passes down the field.
The problem was that just about everything the Vikings did worked. The offense wasn't at its best -- the Eagles scored just three field goals in the first half and were zero for 3 in the red zone in those two quarters -- but 30 points should have been more than enough against a Vikings offense that was missing so much of its star power.
Plus, the Eagles were riding some momentum going into this game. They had not permitted more than 21 points in any of their previous nine games and should have had enough focus and urgency to limit Minnesota.
But the Vikings were hot. Give Cassel credit for playing a whale of a game. He got the ball out of his hands quickly and he was extremely accurate. The Eagles played soft in zone coverage early, and safety Patrick Chung was taken out of the lineup after Jennings burned the defense for a 57-yard touchdown in the first quarter (he eventually returned when Kurt Coleman suffered an injury), and the Eagles allowed Cassel (26 of 35, 382 yards, one touchdown passing, one running) to get into a rhythm that he stayed in throughout the remainder of the game.
"Give him credit. He was outstanding and he got them out of some situations where we had them where we wanted them," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "We tried to mix it up. We brought the blitz some, and they still hit us on some plays. They just did a better job than we did."
Wide receiver Jason Avant thought the team wasn't as sharp mentally and did not back off the idea that the team experienced a letdown.
"I thought so, a little bit," said Avant. "We just couldn't get it going and then we got frustrated at the end. It's something we can't let happen and so we have to figure out what went wrong and fix it."
A critical, and very telling, sequence came late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. A flurry of two touchdowns brought the Eagles to within 27-22 after trailing 27-9, but the defense's inability to get off the field swung the momentum right back to the Vikings.
Minnesota took possession after a short kickoff went to the 31-yard line and was returned to the Vikings 46-yard line -- an approach that was used to keep the ball out of the hands of premier return man Cordarrelle Patterson, but that allowed the Vikings to have great field position all day -- and Cassel promptly went to wide receiver Jarius Wright for 16 yards to the Eagles 38-yard line. Then, on third and 14 from the Eagles 42, Cassel threw down the seam to tight end Chase Ford, just out of the reach of linebacker Mychal Kendricks, for a gain of 37 yards to the Philadelphia 5-yard line.
The Vikings scored two plays later and the Eagles could not get back into the game.
Most troubling in the game, and looking ahead, was the way the Vikings won the battle against Philadelphia's secondary. The Eagles were penalized four times in the secondary -- including two pass interference calls -- and the defensive backs had no answers for Jennings, Patterson or any of the Minnesota receivers as the Vikings had their best day of the year throwing the football. Cassel threw for 382 yards, for goodness sakes.
Next up for the Eagles is Chicago, which features premier receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and a gunslinger at quarterback in Jay Cutler, not to mention one of the best running backs in the league in Matt Forte.
"It's got to get a lot better, there is no doubt about that," said Ryans. "We have to take it upon ourselves as individuals to correct these mistakes and get back to playing the kind of defense we played prior to today. This is unacceptable."
It wasn't just the defense, of course. The strategy to kick the ball away from Patterson kept it away from his hands -- Peterson led the NFL with a 33.3-yard-per-kickoff return average, with two touchdowns going into the game -- but it gave Minnesota great field position all day. The Vikings began their drives after Eagles kickoffs at the 25-yard line, the 38, the 25, the 35, the 34 and the 46-yard line. Great field position.
"It gave them a short field, but we have to get off the field and we didn't do that," said cornerback Bradley Fletcher. "They were better than us. They deserve credit. They stepped up and made plays and we didn't."
"We scored 30 points, but we didn't do enough other things to win the game and that's what bothers me," said left tackle Jason Peters. "We had some breakdowns in protection, we didn't convert a fourth down (a fourth-and-1 run by LeSean McCoy was stuffed for no gain in the third quarter and the Vikings turned that into three points) and we couldn't keep our momentum going. Frustrating."
The Eagles lost for the first time after five wins and set up the last two games for even more of an intense, playoff atmosphere the rest of the way.
"The playoffs start for us these next two games," said Barwin. "We can't afford to slip up in any more games."