For much of the first half Sunday night, the press box at M&T Bank Stadium was buzzing with Minnesota Vikings playoff scenarios.
"If the Redskins and the Cowboys lose next week . . ." Or was it the Giants who had to lose? Or did they need to win?
As it turned out, the Vikings spared us all a colossal headache. As the Baltimore Ravens moved smartly downfield in the fourth quarter, converting third down after third down, the Vikings' playoff picture crystallized in front of our very eyes.
No need to run to the drugstore for aspirin. Put away the cold compresses. There's nothing left to figure out. By losing 30-23 to a Baltimore team that was long gone from the playoff picture weeks ago, the Vikings simplified matters immeasurably.
Instead of some sort of mammoth showdown, next Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears amounts to a friendly practice contest.
"We obviously put ourselves in too deep of a hole early on," coach Mike Tice said.
He's probably right, but I'll resist the temptation to call the Vikings a bunch of losers and chokers. Frankly, I think their record, 8-7, is about right. They were terribly overrated at the start of the season. And injuries made matters much worse.
The truth is, this is a .500 team with an awful offensive line, virtually no running game and serious weakness at linebacker. How can you get angry with the Vikings for playing to their talent level? They lost a few too many games early and won a few too many during their streak.
In the end, there are no trick mirrors here. What you see is what you get.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the game was lost in an unusual fashion. During the team's winning streak, it was the defense that carried it week after week. On Christmas night, the defense caved in. Nobody really expected it.
"I was concerned with what our offense could do," Tice said. "I agree, you're not expecting it."
Tice said the defensive coaches tried all sorts of things to slow the Ravens, then he rattled off a list of defensive tactics as long as your arm: zone, zone drops, man dogs, cloud coverage, swarm blitz, all-out dog ...
"I've never heard us try so many things," Tice said.
None of them worked as the secondary had a collective Fred Smoot-like night. And the defensive front could get no pressure on quarterback Kyle Boller, who suddenly looked like Johnny Unitas.
The end result was that not only were the Vikings eliminated from the playoffs, but they also might have helped save the job of the Baltimore coach - that insufferable Mr. Know It All, Brian Billick. The Ravens now are 6-9.
"I'm very proud to be part of a group like this," Billick said afterward.
Yeah, well, maybe not for long.
The Vikings appeared to have a few things going for them in Baltimore. First, it was a drizzling, foggy night. That's good for a team with a plink, plank, plunk offense.
Sure enough, Brad Johnson pieced together a long drive on the Vikings' first possession to put his team up 7-0. Unfortunately for Minnesota, the Ravens' weak offense can nickel and dime with the best of them. It answered with an even longer drive for a touchdown as Minnesota's defense was way off kilter.
Second, Billick does not have a good team this season. An expert on everything - just ask him - Billick might be losing his grip on his job. The Ravens are out of the playoff picture and had nothing to play for, really.
Finally, there were quite a few empty seats, and those on hand appeared fat and contented from an orgy of Christmas sweets. So, as far as road environments go, this one wasn't all that bad.
But the Vikings, perhaps simply worn out at this point of an injury-filled season, could not hold onto a lead. You can talk about strategy or play calling or whatever, but the team just isn't that good. It needs serious upgrading to become a legitimate playoff contender.
The NFL playoff picture always is murky this time of year as several lousy teams still have some sort of mathematical shot - providing teams X, Y and Z lose . . . team A wins by 21 points . . . and Mercury and Venus align with Mars.
It's all very complicated. Usually, even after the regular season ends, I have no idea if the Vikings made the playoffs or not. It's not until about Wednesday of the following week that I am completely sure.
I usually drive out to Winter Park. If the Vikings still are practicing, I take it as a good sign that they have made the playoffs.
This time, however, I've got it all figured out well in advance. No sweat. Let me explain the various Vikings playoff scenarios:
They are O-U-T out. It all turned out to be quite simple.