EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Devastated. Stunned. Unbelieving.
The Minnesota Vikings were all of that and more Monday as they tried to come to terms with a reality almost no one except the Atlanta Falcons expected: that the Vikings won't be going to the Super Bowl for at least another year.
"I'm walking like in I'm in the twilight zone," nose tackle Jerry Ball said. "I can't believe we lost that game. Honestly. I am truly in the twilight zone."
Ball spent much of Sunday night staring out the window of his downtown Minneapolis hotel room, wondering what went wrong in Sunday's 30-27 overtime loss to the Falcons in the NFC championship game.
He wasn't alone.
Gary Anderson barely slept after missing a 38-yard field goal that would have clinched the victory, his first miss in more than a year. Randall Cunningham was up until 4 a.m. after leading the highest-scoring offense in NFL history to just 7 points after halftime.
"At this point in time, it's just such an abrupt stoppage, you can't think clearly," tight end Andrew Glover said. "It was hard to sleep, it's hard to really believe it was happening. It all seemed like a dream, a bad dream at that. But it's reality."
And a painfully familiar one in Minnesota.
The Vikings haven't been to the Super Bowl since the 1976 season, losing conference title games following the 1977 and 1987 seasons. Even when they got to the Super Bowl in their 1970s heyday, they still lost all four times.
But this was supposed to be the year all that frustration got wiped away.
No defense was supposed to be able to stop Minnesota's explosive offense. Atlanta did after falling behind 20-7 late in the second quarter.
No offense was supposed to be able to function properly in the din of a Metrodome filled with 64,060 wild fans, the largest crowd ever to see a playoff game in Minnesota. The Falcons did.
No team was supposed to keep the Vikings from a Jan. 31 date in Miami with the AFC champions.
"You're going to keep replaying plays that you could have made and situations. And it's gone," said safety Robert Griffith, who dropped a diving interception attempt on the play before Atlanta's tying touchdown with 49 seconds left in regulation. "That's just the way we're built. There's nothing we can do about it now.
"We've just got to be grownups and, for lack of better words, just suck it up and learn from what happened and try to rebuild again."
That was perhaps the most frustrating feeling Monday.
The Vikings felt they had assembled a team capable of winning the first Super Bowl in their 38-year history. Their 15-1 regular-season record and NFL-record 556 points seemed to prove they were right.
They routed Arizona -- just business as usual -- in the divisional playoffs and then built a 20-7 lead on Atlanta with 2:45 left in the first half Sunday.
Miami seemed just a plane ride away.
"You get to the championship game and you really feel you're on your way to the Super Bowl and it ends the way it did, so abruptly, it's the most devastating emotional thing you have to deal with as a coach," said offensive coordinator Brian Billick, who flew to Baltimore on Monday afternoon to interview for a head coaching job.
The day perhaps was hardest for Anderson, the 17-year veteran who never has been to a Super Bowl despite four trips to the conference final (two with Pittsburgh and last season with San Francisco).
Anderson had made a mind-boggling 46 consecutive field goals when he lined up for a 38-yarder late in the fourth quarter. He had made all 106 of his kicks this season, including extra points. But he pushed this one barely wide of the left upright with 2:07 left, keeping the Vikings' lead at 27-20 and allowing Atlanta a chance it grasped.
Anderson barely could contain his emotions after the game, but he answered every question about the miss. He did the same Monday. Tears welled in his eyes as he recalled meeting his 9-year-old son, Austin, after the game.
"The first I saw him he came over and gave me a big hug and reminded me of one of the lessons that I try to teach him all the time," Anderson said. "He said, `Well, Dad. You tell me all the time you can't make 'em all.' It was a hard way to learn that lesson myself.
"That certainly hit home."
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